I’ve never found a “hack” for success more effective than this one, a piece of advice I used to hear all the time from my dad: The best way to get what you want is by getting to know the people who already have it.
It’s advice I’ve relied on throughout my career. Over the years, I’ve reached out to well over 200 people doing things I thought were cool, requesting a chance to speak with them. Only three people have declined my invitation to talk. (Well, technically four — Oprah never got back to me.) This practice of cold-emailing has helped me build a professional tribe that has become a place for support, connection, and more opportunities than I ever thought possible.
At a time when everyone is dealing with a lot, the ability to craft an email that not only gets read but gets a positive response is an increasingly valuable skill. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it well.
Don’t begin by trying to call Oprah
If I learned anything from my experience of reaching out to strangers, it’s that the world is full of incredibly talented people who can help you grow. You don’t need Oprah, Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss or any other high-profile figure who will definitely never see your request to “put some time on their calendar.” Start smart by identifying friends of friends who are doing cool things.
Don’t limit your list to people who are in your exact field, either. Breakthroughs often come when you surround yourself with people who view things through a different lens.
Your subject line matters
After you’ve made a list of people to reach out to, it’s time to craft your email. The subject line “Friend of [mutual friend’s name]” is a solid option, but it’s not the only one. In one experiment, the entrepreneur and author Shane Snow found that simple subject lines like “Quick question” net strong results when you’re reaching out to new people. (Marketers, however, are starting to use this subject line more often, so its effectiveness may be waning.)
For me personally, the subject line “Thank you” has consistently been the most effective in starting conversations. (We’ll talk about how you should thank the person in your email in a bit.) People don’t write thank-you notes as much as they say they do. This simple act will help you to stand out without showing off.
Know your “North Star”
When I first started becoming more serious about my writing, the speaker and entrepreneur Conor Neill gave me this advice: When drafting an article, write at the top of the page: “After reading this, I want the reader to ________?” He told me to use this question as my North Star to guide my writing.
You can apply this same strategy to writing your email. Have one clear agenda, even if it’s simply to try to get them on a call so you can learn more about them. Make sure your goal is clear so the message you send supports exactly what you are looking to accomplish.
Embrace the “Rule of 7”
One of the oldest principles in marketing is the Rule of 7, which states that a prospective customer needs to be exposed to an advertiser’s message seven times before they will take action. This doesn’t mean that if you send an email and don’t get a response, you should follow up six more times (please don’t do that). But it does mean that a person will be more open to an email from you if they’re somewhat familiar with your name.
Play with ways to get your name in front of them before making that initial direct contact. Sharing their work on social media is one way to do this. If you have a blog, you can write a post that mentions how their work has positively affected you and then tag them on Twitter, thanking them for the inspiration. Get creative. Just don’t do too many things at once, too close together, or you risk turning them off.
Show them what their work has helped you achieve
Successful people get a lot of fan mail and requests to chat. To help your email stand out, make it clear that you’ve been following their work for a while (instead of just gushing over the latest thing that went viral) and that it has impacted you in a specific way. You can use the formula: “Thanks to your work doing X, I’ve been able to accomplish Y.”
I like to pull out a small detail from their work that has made my life easier. For instance, I’ve always admired the energy and sense of humor that Noah Kagan, the founder of AppSumo, brings to his work. But instead of giving him this generic message, I recently let him know I was writing an article about something he had mentioned in passing on a podcast — his “Holy Shit Jar” — and asked him how I could best link to his work. We didn’t automatically become best friends after that, but we do have plans to talk.
Before asking for a favor, think of how you can help them
To really forge a connection, it’s important to let the person know that building a relationship with you would be mutually beneficial. Maybe that person is writing a book and you can be a part of their launch team. Or perhaps they’re starting a business and your work as a designer can help them to create a more persuasive website. One of the best habits you can form is to ask yourself every day how you can make the lives of the people around you better.
This advice isn’t foolproof — some people are busy, while others may not be prioritizing meeting new people at the moment. But keep at it. When you grow your network, you expand your world.
This article originally appeared on Medium.