Please tell me you’ve read Adrian J. Hopkins’ recent Daily Muse article, “How to Handle Requests for Favors or Your Time.” If not, make sure you check it out (and bookmark it).
Hopkins examines what connecting with someone really entails and walks through the steps of assessing whether you have the time and energy to help a new contact. His article got me thinking: If there are best practices to decide whether or not to assist a new connection, surely there have to be hacks for the other side of the equation (i.e., things you can do to make people more likely to want to meet with you).
Here are three shifts that can make all in the difference in how your request is received.
1. Be Literal About Time
Let’s start with the two words (or one compound word) you should never use: “some time.” If you ask someone if she has “some time” to talk or if you could meet up with him “sometime,” you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Why? Because “some [amount of] time” isn’t tangible. Do you want to meet with someone for an hour? He doesn’t have time for that, so he’ll decline your request. Do you request to meet for coffee “some time [in the future]?” Then your contact can agree, and as long as she meets you at some point over the course of your career, she’s kept her word.
If you get specific about how much time you’re actually asking for, you’ll greatly increase your chances of the other person saying “yes.” As far as how much time you’ll need, make the request proportionate to your relationship. If you’d like to meet with someone you used to know, it’s fine to ask for 20 minutes or a half hour. Just be honest about what you hope to discuss. You’re not going to simply “catch up” with a boss from five years ago: Congratulate him on his new role at your dream company, and tell him you’d love to hear his insights on the type of work he’s doing and the path he took to get there.
If it’s someone you don’t know very well (i.e., a contact of a contact), ask for 10 to 15 minutes, and be sure to clarify “in person,” “by phone,” or “over email.” If you feel like you need more time—because you had hoped to introduce yourself, deduce career secrets, build a bond, and get recommended for a job—then your ask is (obviously, let’s hope) way too big. Make your ask specific and relevant—for example, about someone’s area of expertise or how you might collaborate.
Finally, don’t ask to meet “sometime,” tomorrow, or when you get back from a trip in three months. Look for a happy medium (i.e., not so soon as to fluster your contact, but soon enough that she actually knows her schedule). I’d suggest starting with dates about two weeks out.
2. Show, Don’t Tell
So, you know you need to name a specific quantity of time and a target date. Are there other things you can do as far as the form and structure of your email to show you mean business?
Even if you only ask to speak for 10 minutes, you won’t look like you actually grasp the other person’s time constraints if your intro email is four pages long. Additionally, you can say, “I’m grateful for your time,” but if you’re too audacious (think: “When can I expect to meet with you?” or “When shall I schedule our meeting?”), you don’t look very appreciative.
Compose your email as a draft or rehearse what you plan to say before you make a call. Check for brevity, relevance, and courteousness.
3. Know the Rules of Name-Dropping
My mentor was super well-connected and very well-respected, and would generously say, “use my name.” Using his name absolutely opened doors. Every time I opened an email with, “Chet Safian suggested I contact you…” I got an email back (usually within the day, if not the hour).
Using someone’s name to open your email is like having your mutual connection personally walk you up to your new contact: It’s huge. However, there are a few rules you must follow. First, be absolutely certain that your mutual contact is OK with you using his name. Don’t be afraid to ask: It’s important he not be blindsided—and he may even offer to make the introduction personally!
Moreover, you have to check the situation out, because leading with a mutual connection isn’t always the way to go. Just because two people are connected on LinkedIn or worked at the same company, doesn’t mean they’re close. And in a worst-case scenario, there could even be bad blood. Regardless, you don’t want to be known as someone who drops names (without asking for permission).
Finally, don’t act like knowing someone influential makes you a big deal. While discussing your mutual contact can be a great conversation starter, if you come off like you think knowing this person makes you particularly important, you could easily turn off your new contact. This is especially true for familial connections. Saying, “My dad suggested I reach out to you with a few questions I had about your alma mater,” is a world away from the dreaded “Do you know who my parents are?”
A new contact will consider your initial outreach when she decides whether or not she has time to help you. Use these best practices to make a strong impression—and land that meeting.