Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Sending cold emails can be intimidating. Many people are hesitant and fearful of sending emails to recipients they don’t know and asking favors of strangers. While it’s true that many cold emails will go unanswered, in many cases, receiving just one positive response could change your whole life.

For instance, if you’re looking for a new job and have been unsuccessful responding to job board advertisements, cold emailing businesses you admire could help you get noticed, since you’re not competing with a sea of other candidates applying for the same job.

Sending an email to someone you don't know can be daunting, but the process doesn’t need to be difficult. Here are five steps for how to introduce yourself in an email to a stranger in a professional context:

1. Find the correct person to contact

If you’re sending emails to a business or a company, do some digging to find the correct contact or contacts. While many business websites have general email addresses along the lines of [email protected], it’s always better to find a direct contact. A general email address probably receives thousands of messages and a sea of spam daily. If you have a personal address, you’re not only more likely to reach the person for whom your message is intended, but you’re also more likely to have your message read.

You might need to research the business a bit in order to find the right recipient. If you’re trying to publish an article, you might need to locate an issue of the publication to find the correct editor on the masthead. Try Googling if you can’t find the contact on the company’s website, or go on LinkedIn for a list of employees. Avoid using her Gmail or another personal account; that could come off as unprofessional.

2. Be complimentary

Convey your admiration for the business. You chose to send this particular message to this particular recipient (or recipients) for a reason. Say what it is. If it’s a well-known name in your field, describe how her work resonates with you. People are likely to respond to flattery.

On a similar note, avoid being generic. Don’t use the same email template to write to every contact on your list. Instead, vary your message to demonstrate that you’ve done your homework and wrote this email just for her.

3. Be succinct

People have short attention spans. This is especially true if your email wasn’t solicited. Keep your message brief, and make it to-the-point. Get there quickly.

4. Be specific

You have some purpose in writing this email. Whether you’re looking for a job, trying to get advice, or hoping to get an article published, the purpose of your message needs to be clear. State what it is upfront.

However, rather than writing, “I’m looking for a job as a sales representative,” explain what you think you can bring to the business. Describe a gap you see in the services the company provides, and explain how you can fill it.

Remember to be specific. Describe how your experience can serve the needs of the company, but don’t regurgitate your entire resume. If your recipient’s interest is piqued by what you say in the body of the email, she will go on to read your resume.

5. Convey appreciation

Thank your recipient for her time. Even if your contact doesn’t provide you with the response you want, she’s still doing you a favor by reading a message from a stranger. She may even be able to refer you to other contacts who could help you. The more appreciative you come across, the more willing people will be to help you.

A few reminders

Keep your message professional. Include dates and headers with your contact information, and use the greeting “Dear so-and-so:” or “To so-and-so.” Refer to her by her title. If she doesn’t have a doctorate or another title connoting her profession, and you don’t know the recipient’s gender, simply use the contact’s full name: Dear Jamie Smith.

Close with “Thank you” or “Sincerely” and your full name. Even if the company seems informal, it’s best to keep your message professional until you know the person to whom you’re writing.

Craft a simple, direct subject. If you’re writing at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, name that person, since it may make your recipient more likely to open it. If you’re looking for advice, you could say, “Advice on X.”

Remember to attach a resume with headers that include your reply-to address. It's okay to include and send the message from your Gmail account in this context, assuming it's the address you want the recipient to use. If they’re relevant, you might also want to include links or attachments with samples of your work.

Sending an email to a stranger—paricularly in a professional context—can seem a little scary, but the process is actually fairly simple. Remember: in most cases, you just need one positive response to make it worth it. You have nothing to lose and lot to gain.