The Emotionally Intelligent Way To Cold-Email People (If You Must)

People don’t love being contacted out of the blue. So you need an opening line that puts your recipient front and center. Here are five ways to craft one.

I get about 10 cold emails a day. Most are from PR firms who know I’m a Fast Company contributor and want me to write about their clients. If the first line fails to draw me in, I hit delete; if I like the sound of it, I’ll read on. Same goes for cold phone calls from organizations pitching financial advice or seeking money for a charity: That opening statement is everything.

How do you create an opening–whether for an email or a phone call–that makes the person at the other end want to hear more? The answer is simple: flip your focus from yourself (or whatever it is you’re offering or asking for) to the person you’re reaching out to.

The fact is that nobody particularly likes to field cold emails or cold calls. But with a more emotionally intelligent opening, you can at least get them to listen. Here’s how.


It’s understandable that you want to get to the point–and explain why you’re writing or calling. But an opening line focused on your own agenda is likely a turnoff to the other person.

“The past six months has changed the way we talk about and understand gender equality in the workplace,” one recent PR pitch began. Okay, I thought, but why are you sharing this with me?Another publicity email opened with, “As we all know, millennials have grown up surrounded by technology, iPhones practically glued to their hands.” If “we all know” it already, what’s new here? Plus, I’m not a millennial, so why are you contacting me? (My editor, who is a millennial, isn’t too keen on millennial trend pieces, by the way.)

Some writers open with surprising facts about their subject, hoping the reader will care. One recent email began: “$46 billion a year is spent on leadership training, but a recent Gallup survey showed that 82% of employees find their leaders ‘uninspiring.’” Another began with a whopping 58-word sentence about the app the writer wanted me to profile (not something I do), but I’d had enough of that topic by the time I’d reached the end of the line.

The point here isn’t to complain about the bad practices of the PR industry. It’s that introductions to people you don’t know should never launch right into something abstract, newsy, or conceptual. Think about it: If you were at a networking event, would you begin a conversation with a content-rich disquisition on your area of expertise? Not if you wanted to engage your listener! The same wisdom applies to cold emails and phone calls.

BEGIN WITH YOUR AUDIENCE Instead, open with a focus on your reader or listener. Make it personal, so they’ll feel you’re really talking to them–rather than delivering a generic pitch. These are five emotionally intelligent ways to do that in your very first line:

  1. Mention a mutual interest. You might begin your email, “Good morning, Frank. I’m writing to you because I know you’re interested in the way leaders communicate, and that’s a focus that my client’s company shares.”

  2. Refer to a shared contact. Our working lives are built on relationships, so if there’s a network connection you share, point that out to the stranger you’re reaching out to–you’ll seem a little less unfamiliar. Suppose you’re the head of a consulting business, and you are calling a potential CEO client. You might begin: “Good morning, Barbara. I’m calling because Ashanti Masterton told me you have an ambitious speaking agenda, and she thought you’d be interested in how my firm might support you.” These mutual ties will often get your foot in the door.

  3. Show you know something about them. My antennae would go up if I got a letter that began: “I know your work as a columnist for Fast Company, and I’m fascinated by your writing on emotional intelligence in the workplace.” Likewise, if you’re extending a speaking invitation, you might begin, “I heard your recent talk on team building, and I can’t think of a better message for my team. Would you join us for our annual retreat, and share that same message?”

  4. Convey respect or appreciation for what they’ve accomplished. Suppose you’ve decided you want to be mentored by a senior coworker who doesn’t know you. Your first step might be to send an email that opens with, “I’ve admired you from a distance for your ability to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ in our industry, and I’d love to grab coffee to hear a little more about your career experiences.”

  5. Say what’s in it for them. Maybe you’re job searching and want to talk with the head of HR about opportunities. Cold pitching about job opportunities is always a crapshoot (it may work better for informational interviews), but you stand the best chance with an opening like, “I know your firm hires some of the best talent around, and I wonder if you’d be interested in the strong communications experience I’d bring.” I tried this approach early in my career when I cold-called the HR chief for a large telecom company; it landed me a job.

The way you open will determine how things conclude. So always start by referring directly to your listener or reader–their needs, interests, and priorities. Yes, that may mean getting to your point a moment or two later, but it’s the only way you’ll be granted the opportunity to do so in the first place.

By Judith Humphrey, first published on March 18, 2018