man on phone

It happens—you start a new job, make new friends, and slowly lose touch with colleagues from previous positions. It may appear, for a time, that you won’t need anything from that professor from college or manager from your first job. But then, a great opportunity suddenly requires you to dig further back into your list of contacts than you expected.

Whether you find yourself applying for an advanced position at a new company, a business grant for a project you’re starting, or adding recommendations to your LinkedIn profile, there will come a time when it’s necessary to contact an older manager or colleague for a good word.

But, here’s the thing: These references may not remember you. Maybe you were part of a large class or internship rotation, or it’s simply been too many years without contact. It may be a coin toss as far as how much she remembers the details of your work and could speak about your skills without refreshing her memory.

While the prospect of reaching out to someone who may not remember you can be stomach-turning, the great news is that there are some rules you can follow to handle it in a graceful and respectful manner.

1. Remind Him Who You Are

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that your reference knows what you’re currently up to. Avoid using phrases like “as you know” or “you may have heard.” Instead, introduce yourself again (briefly) and remind him who you are. Add in details he may remember such as a specific project, an especially memorable day at the office, or any mutual colleagues that you worked with at the same time. This way, you save this person from having to awkwardly write back, “Who are you, again?”

Then, write three sentences on what you’ve achieved since you last spoke, what your sights are set on now, and why you thought of him. When you lead the other person through a snapshot of how you’ve developed personally and professionally, you catch him up, which helps him grasp the overall scope of the favor.

In other words, if you’re reaching for a referral, it’s a different ask if you’ve been working in a relevant industry for the last five years and know it’s a job you’d like to pursue, versus if you’re in a different field and lightly considering it among several different options.

2. Mind Your Tone

It’s important to acknowledge that time has passed. This is especially true if you were never close enough to crack jokes when you worked together. (And even if you were on friendly terms, it’s better to open up the conversation with a more respectful tone. After all, you’re coming to him or her for a favor after some time.)

Approaching the other person in a neutral tone will help bridge the lapse of time so you avoid coming off too apologetic or overly friendly. Try this: Draft your message in a Word document first and read it out loud. Evaluate your tone by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and asking yourself: If you had received this note from her, would you feel like it was appropriate?

3. Ask for the Best Way to Reach Her

Before launching into a long-winded explanation of what you need from her, ask her for the best way to deliver this request. Maybe you messaged her via an old email you had or through a social media platform. Ask if this is the best format to continue the conversation. (Even if you just want to ask to list her as a reference, you’ll still need preferred contact information to pass on to the potential employer.)

Try this: “I would love to ask some questions about a company I’m applying to. Is this something you’d have time for, and if so, is this the best way to contact you or do you prefer I send questions to another email?”

Giving her the chance to share a preferred method will show that you respect her time and workflow.

4. Give Him a Clear Call to Action

Once you’ve established the best way to reach him, send a clear and short follow-up message as well as any details that would help him be an informed reference. Since his memory of your work may be vague, don’t be shy to offer some examples or direction.

For example, if you’re asking him to write a recommendation for a specific role, pass on the description, suggest an area of your expertise you’d like him to focus on, and remind him of a specific project where you demonstrated it. Furthermore, include any deadlines associated with the request.

Giving clear details on exactly how your contact can help will allow him to schedule it into his week—or let you know up front that he won’t have the time.

5. Offer Something in Return

Finally, find a way to close the circle and offer something back to your contact. Whether you can write her a LinkedIn recommendation as well, or if you’d like to take her out to lunch to catch up; make the effort to suggest a returned favor.

Say this: “I truly appreciate the time you’ve taken to address my request. Is there anything I can help with or recommend you for in return? I’m more than happy to help you in your current endeavors or take you out to lunch so we can reconnect in person.”

Establishing your intention for a mutual exchange will conclude your conversation on a positive and memorable note, and most likely strengthen your relationship going forward.

Reaching out to a reference who may not remember you can be daunting. But once you’ve brushed off the dust, you may find that the experience is a refreshing way to update your network, communicate your current goals, and strengthen relationships with those who have played a pivotal part in a time in your career.