4 mistakes smart people avoid in a networking email

Writing a networking email can a vulnerable, awkward process where there’s an inherent power imbalance: you’re emailing someone, often a stranger with no personal investment in you, about something you want that they have.

We know it’s important to get over our fears, because successful networking can result in valuable information and connections.

Unfortunately, rejection — or worse, silence — is too often the result of a badly written networking email. Too many of us are hearing crickets to our emails due to easily fixable mistakes we make in our networking requests.

The good news is: the mistakes we make really are very easily fixable.

As someone who has written bad, rambling networking emails that still make me blush, I’m going to teach you to succeed where I have failed by avoiding these four clear pitfalls.

1. Asking ‘pick someone’s brain’

While “I’d like to pick your brain” is a popular casual opening, it’s one of the worst things you can say. Vaguely asking to “pick someone’s brain” puts the burden on the recipient to be your Oracle of Delphi about why you’re contacting them. It also means you’re treating them as someone you’re going to take things from — their actual brainpower! — without offering anything in return.

Besides being unhelpful to both sender and recipient, the metaphor of asking to pick someone’s brain can sound vaguely menacing.

Here’s how to do it better: Know what you want and be specific about why you’re contacting this person. Do you want an informational interview, an email contact, career advice, or to become friends with this person? Say so. Your recipient will breathe a sigh of relief at being able to help — which most people would like to do — without being treated as a lab rat for your own career plans.

2. Stressing the fact that you’re a stranger

Humans are alike: on some level, we’re a little wary of strangers. People who are successful with large social networks are even more likely to depend on referrals or acquaintances to meet more people; their dance cards are already full.

That’s why there’s no benefit, and no charm, in pointing out that they don’t know you from Adam. Even if this person has no reason to remember your existence, don’t discount yourself by saying, “you may not remember me but…”

Yes, you may be strangers, but why remind the recipient that you’re basically strangers with no reason to talk to each other. As The Muse notes, “there’s no requirement that you lead with the fact that it’s been a while. If your note is thoughtful and brief, that’s generally all you need.”

Instead, find something you may have in common to talk about, even if that’s just how much you admire the recipient’s work. People love talking about themselves. It’s okay to open a networking email with sincere praise.

If you’d like to find more things to talk about in these emails, you can do as my most organized friend did in his unemployment. This friend of mine kept an Excel spreadsheet of networking interactions he made during his job hunt, complete with time stamps and a memorable anecdote the interaction produced. That way, when he followed up with a networking email weeks or months later, he could remind the recipient how, say, they both grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois and make the email more personal.

It’s a smart way to turn a potentially formal email into a more familiar, human interaction: “Hey there, we met at last year’s conference and talked about us both growing up near Chicago…” Any common bond will go a long way.

3. Baring your soul and your life’s story in an email

The opposite of formality is oversharing, trying to force intimacy by adding unnecessary facts about our entire lives.

It may be tempting to make this stranger your friend by filling them in on your multi-paragraph life’s story, but if you do that before you know someone — read: before they have any reason to care about you — then this attempt at personalizing networking emails will likely backfire.

The antidote: Be concise. The recipient should be able to quickly scan your email to figure out why you’re contacting them.Three short paragraphs at most are a good introduction until the person replies or decides to invest some time in you.

People are sifting through endless emails, and if you want yours to be remembered, it needs to be direct. Corporate email users received about 84 emails a day on average in 2015. Save swapping in-depth career stories for if you actually meet up in person.

4. A boring, unclear subject line

The subject line is the first thing a recipient will read, so you need to be good at grabbing their attention with it.

Definitely do not leave the subject line blank — nothing good ever came from a blank subject line — but also don’t make it a vague, short bleat like “mentoring?”

Mailchimp’s researchers found that emails with description won out over trendy lines like “sizzling summer bargains” that don’t have a specific hook or clearly define what the email is promoting.

Good networking emails like “salesperson seeking career advice” or “reporter with contact request” clearly state what the email’s going to be about.

Pro tip: you should use your subject line as your guide on what to include in the email. If it’s not related to your specific request, leave it out.

And if you don’t get a response right away, be patient and persistent. People are understandably very busy and a networking email is likely not at the top of their priorities. That being said, it’s appropriate to follow up if you haven’t heard anything in a week or two.

And the one thing you should do: always, always say “thank you,” afterward if the person helps you— or even if they don’t, but make the time to give you some thoughts. It may sound obvious to thank someone, but a surprising number of people forget — and lose a relationship that would have made them more successful. Being nice goes a long way.