Networking Emails – Learning from the Mistakes of Another
My girlfriend recently shared a somewhat lengthy email she received from a guy soliciting her advice to critique his first attempt at legal writing. Now, being she is a professor in the area, and makes a pretty good living providing legal writing services to attorneys, she is a great choice to reach out to on such a matter. But there were several issues with his email, and while she may have felt they were unusual mistakes, I see and experience them all too often in career advisement. I thought it would be beneficial to break down the major no-no’s of his failed attempt at networking.
He didn’t introduce himself
This is such a common mishap. It’s funny, students often say, “I’m not sure what to say when I write a contact,” or “how do I start a conversation at this event?” Often, my reply is to begin with saying hello, and an introduction. It seems so simple, but it totally slips people’s minds in their nervousness, urgency, or whatever distracting emotion they are feeling. And it doesn’t just happen on email.
I get calls and voicemails from students all the time that start and end the conversation or message without a proper introduction of who is calling. I get the why, and even how to call back, but no name. Sometimes I have to stop people mid-sentence to say, “I’m sorry, with whom am I speaking?”
When you reach out to someone you’ve never met, it is always good to include the basics early. Who are you? I don’t mean this in any deep and existential way. I mean simply, what is your name? From where are you calling/emailing? And most importantly, how did you find this person’s information? No one wants to feel cyber stalked by a stranger. Was it a mutual friend that connected you? Did you find the email or phone number on a company website? Did your alumni office send you her way? Contacting someone out of the blue with no context to your connection can come off a little presumptuous, intrusive, and even creepy.
He asked for advice/favors in the very first email
The purpose of a networking email is not to get out all you need from the person at once. They don’t know you. They have no reason at all to even read your long email, much less actually fulfill your wishes.
The purpose of connecting with this person, initially, is to establish interest and permission. You have to know that it is okay to begin a conversation, first and foremost. How do you know if they prefer email to a brief phone conversation? That they still do what it is you think they do? That they actually have a little free time to share their advice or expertise? You must first gain permission to continue in the method they deem most appropriate. This should be done in a concise and direct manner.
In addition, in his case, he was asking for her to perform a service. Does she usually do this for free? Perhaps for friends or acquaintances, but for a total stranger? It is a huge favor to ask a complete stranger to offer his or her expertise on your work without an offer of compensation in some way, or at least inquiring about potential costs. But again- none of this should even take place in an initial conversation. It is too soon and comes across as very pushy.
His email was poorly constructed
There were misplaced indentations and grammar/spelling errors. If you are emailing someone, and your hope is to in some way gain their support or advocacy, it’s important to put your best foot forward. If a networking contact is to gain the opinion that you are an intelligent, hard-working, well-intentioned student worthy of his attention, advice, and connections, an initial email with even one or two minor errors can be unforgiving.
If writing is not your strength, be sure you have someone proofread your email before you send it off. Believe it or not, something so seemingly menial is often where students will enlist the help of career center advisors. We are happy to help students craft and proof networking emails before they are sent to the intended target. It gives students peace of mind knowing a professional has already seen and endorsed the message.
He tried to praise one of her accomplishments…that she never achieved
In closing his email, he complimented her on a project she’d recently completed, that is nonexistent. Trying to “butter up” your reader with admiration of something they have accomplished can be just fine, but it can be tricky.
First, as in his case, you need to be absolutely sure you’re correct. Mentioning a never-earned award or nonexistent book release can totally confuse a reader. Now he is left wondering if he is even the person you thought you were reaching out to, or if you’ve simply received bad information? It also leaves the reader in a precarious position. Does he correct you? Ignore the blunder? Making your potential networking contact feel awkward is not a great way to start a relationship.
Secondly, admiration can come off as insincere and fluffy, so if you choose to go this route, don’t overdo it. You don’t have to spend a lot of time boosting your contact’s feelings of self-worth in order to get help. Most people are happy to assist you without the presence of ego-stroking verbiage weighing down your message.
What I want you all to take away from this, if nothing else, is to let a professional (or someone you really trust to provide solid advice on such matters) look over at least one of your networking emails before you send it out. It can truly make or break the response you receive! Beginning a relationship requires thoughtfulness and strategy. Don’t let any of the above pitfalls ruin the possibility of a great connection.