How to Write a Cold Email

Cold emailing is harder compared to other forms of communication for two reasons. First, you do not have a relationship with the audience yet, and secondly, you lack non-verbal feedback, hence you cannot modify your approach in real-time. For this reason, most cold emails fail.

However, a cold email can still work well. People have launched their start-ups and built careers with just a little more than a cold email. You need to note what we are discussing here are not sales emails that are mostly sent in bulk but cold emailing a specific person.

The subject of cold email has not been researched extensively, though one of the interesting experiments was done by Shane Snow for his book known as Smartcuts. Snow sent 1,000 cold emails to various executives but received almost no response. When he tried again with a smaller number from the same group, he received better results. He achieved this by applying a few principles that are in line with my extensive experience in cold email and great advice from people such as Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant, and entrepreneurs Heather Morgan and Tim Ferriss.  

There are five things that an effective cold email does. It should:

Tailor the message to the recipient.

There is a need to undertake your research but there’s a wrong and right way of doing it.  

I have received approximately many cold emails Most of them would make a general mention of something about my name on the first page picked from Google results, then launch into a tone-deaf and ridiculous request such as “Hey, can you read my 300-page novel, give me extensive notes, and then get me an agent?” You cannot call this personalization.

Personalization implies you have thought about a person, how they see the world, what their interests are and what they really want-you have indeed developed a “theory of mind” on the recipient. It means you have made a lot of effort into trying to understand them.

You have to make it clear why you cold emailed them as opposed to anyone else. Studies have shown that people would often be motivated to assist others when they feel uniquely qualified to do so. If you precisely outline where your target audience fits in, you end up telling a story that would make more sense to them.

Another important thing is to ensure that your request is not fulfilled easily through other means. I may not be in a position to tell you the number of emails I get requesting advice on writing a book, although I have previously written a book about that exact subject. This is avoided through personalization since you have read up and know the available books on your subject of interest.

Validate yourself.

If you meet a stranger or get a cold email from them, you become curious to know who they are and why they matter to us.

You need to remember as the person doing a cold email, you are in fact the stranger. However, you must have done extensive research about the people you email since they may not know anything about you. Show them that you are credible enough and they should trust you.

Knowing someone in common remains the strongest form of social proof you could offer. Mention any direct connections if you have any. A mutual friend implies you are no longer strangers.  

If you lack that but you have some credibility, authority, or social status relevant to the person you are engaging and towards the request you are making, mention it immediately in one or two lines. You are likely to get a response to a cold email when you package yourself as being important to the recipient.

However, if you lack real status, there is no problem. You can find a commonality. For instance, you can package yourself as being in the same group, particularly a personal group which remains a core human attraction. Again, find those unexpected connections such as hometowns or unusual hobbies. As pointed out by Adam Grant, “similarities matter more when they are rare. As humans, we bond more when we have uncommon commonalities that would allow us to feel we fit in and stand out at the same time.

The issue here is finding a way of shedding that “stranger” tag to becoming part of the cold email recipient’s group.

Alleviate your audience’s pain or give them something they want

You need to ask yourself why the recipients should read or care about your email or why a person who is so busy should respond to your email. The point is what is in the cold email for them?

You need to remember that people are interested more in avoiding pain than acquiring pleasure. If through your research you found the recipient has major pain points, you can highlight how you will provide relief. For example, A VC friend of mine tweeted to complain about how his car constantly got tickets due to misleading street signs. An entrepreneur intending to pitch a start-up began his cold email with a link to a robo-calling service that would take care of parking tickets. The VC embraced the service and thanked the entrepreneur, took a pitch meeting, and connected him to other VCs, two of whom invested.

Therefore, if you cannot solve a certain problem, give people what they want. You can tell them you will connect them to someone they would like to meet –ensure you stand out because no one would give before asking. For this reason, your gift should be appropriate, from one stranger to the next. Someone once sent me an Amazon gift card which I considered weird and awkward.

Keep it short, easy, and actionable.

An opportunity to assist someone is enjoyable for many people which can even qualify as a “want.” When you ask for help, you give them the chance of feeling good about themselves. Go ahead and make it easy for your recipients.

You may know that people are likely to read short cold emails than long ones. Likewise, emails with clear requests and specific actions get higher response rates. You need to know that long-winded and rambling cold emails do suck.

The best way of keeping things short and direct is by writing the way you talk. For instance, if you met a new person at a cocktail party, you may not want to walk up and just start pitching them. You would adopt a more acceptable procedure of introducing yourself, tell them something nice, and try to connect through a shared interest or friend, and thereafter make a request. The request should also make sense.

My recommendation is that you read the cold email out loud before sending it. If you realize it sounds natural, it is likely to read well to the audience. I usually edit my writings this way.

And to ensure your “ask” is easy and actionable, you need to do a lot for your audience. For instance, it’s terrible to tell your audience “let me know if you want to meet up.” It forces the recipient to exert mental energy while leaving them with the responsibility of deciding for both. Further, it puts the onus on the recipient to sort the details out. This kind of message is short but may not be easy or actionable.

You can compare the above with: “I can meet on Monday or Tuesday between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. at the Compass Coffee on 8th. If you feel that does not work for you, feel free to tell me what does, and I will make it happen.” It gives them an easy and clear action to take with a specific bounded option.

However, there’s more to a good “ask” than telling people what you want. The way you tell them matters a lot.  

Be appreciative and a little vulnerable

I would advise you to go as far as being slightly submissive. This does not mean you grovel before the audience like they are feudal lords. Yours is to ask someone who does not know you for favors. Through an expression of gratitude and vulnerability, you give your audience that feeling of dealing with a good person if they chose to help. Giving them a bit of status and power while approaching them may work wonders.

It can indeed get you results. For example, just saying “Thank you so much! I am so grateful” to a particular request can double the response rates. You can tell your audience it’s fine if they are not that busy. In essence, giving people a way out will make them more willing to assist you. This sounds obvious but many people do not do it. Approximately half of those who have cold emailed me do not express any appreciation beyond that perfunctory “thanks.” Most of them sounded entitled and brusque. I have also noted strangers who ask for huge favors write things such as “Lemme know how quickly I can expect you to get this done.” This implies they do not feel like they can wait or be patient enough. Obviously, this tone has repercussions because a recipient would say; I do not feel like I should help them.

Finally, avoid using a template. If you searched “cold email template” online you would get many of them. I went through dozens and several were excellent for mass email and sales. However, I did not find a good template that had a personalized cold email.

It makes sense because if you want to personalize something, it cannot be from a template. Hence, this article has laid out certain principles but does not have any scripts.

Here are some converting cold emails that you might want to check out. Get them for free when you register.