How to Write an Effective Cold Email
Tips for getting someone you don't know to do something they don't have to.
I always say that the most important part of my podcast is the cold email. About 80% of the show’s quality is getting interesting people to come on it. The other 20% is me shutting up long enough for them to say something worthwhile. Given that I don’t know most of the people I reach out to, I have to be really convincing in that initial cold email. This is what I’ve learned after a couple years of asking famous scientists, writers, and thinkers to take an hour or two of their day to lives with me—and having the majority of them say yes.
The good news is that, as far as podcasts go, there is a positive force working for you. People generally like doing podcasts. Of all the requests that a prominent person gets, these are among the most enjoyable.
But the negative force working against you is—and this is always the case with the dark side—stronger. People, especially academics, already have so much going on. Chances are they’ve never heard of you or your show. Why should they spend an hour of their busy day to help you out? It’s commonplace for me when interviewing a professor to hear their email inbox chiming away in the background, delivering solicitations of their time like fresh loaves of bread. These people are getting two hundred emails a day, many with non-trivial requests like the one you’re saddling them with now. You need to give them a reason to pick yours out of the batch, put aside whatever else they’re doing, and take the time to talk to you.
The hard part here is that writing an effective email is not a natural mode of human communication. It’s already difficult enough to sound natural in writing in general. It’s even harder when you’re trying to convey who you are and what you’re up to in a message to someone who has never met you.
Even professionals do a poor job at this. I get emails all the time from publicists of mid-list books asking me to have their authors on the show (not the big time authors who go on, like, Armchair Expert; but ones that still have someone directly responsible for publicizing their books) that are just awful. I mean, absolutely terrible. And these are publicists. It’s their job to write effective cold emails, and they don’t.
Here are my best practices.
I begin my emails with a formal salutation. Something like “Dear Dr Smith,...” always using the highest applicable honorific, a gender neutral one if possible. Even though no one talks like that in real life (and all my future emails to them say “Hi Jane,...” or something more colloquial like that), to do so at the beginning marks you out as one professional addressing another. The best thing you can do in the salutation is not embarrass yourself.
The first line of the email body is always a brief introduction. Literally: “My name is Cody, and I’m a PhD student in psychology at Oxford.” This is literally just Talking to Humans 101. You say your name and give them a relevant hook of identity on which to place you. It also saves you from having to come up with a creative first line, which is tough to make sound natural. From there, it’s the body.
An effective cold email consists of three sections, which I’ve illustrated in this schematic:
The size of each box is approximately the amount of space you should give to the section. Here’s what they consist of:
The first section is about them. The number one thing you’re trying to do here is make them want to help you. You are asking for their time, knowledge, access to their audience, etc; they are not obligated to give you any of that. Give them a reason to want to. People aren’t going to make a decision on whether to do your show based on how great your show is (unless you have something to offer them, like a metric shit tonne of subscribers). They’re going to make a decision based on how you make them feel. The easiest way to get them to like you—to want to help you—is to tell them how much you admire their work.
So the first thing I say after I introduce myself is to say that I admire their work. Something simple like: “I’m a big fan of your work.” This section functions as a transition from introducing myself to now we’re going to talk about you. This is also the thesis statement of the paragraph. After this I’m going to talk about the specific reasons why I’m a fan of your work. Then I’ll probably summarize everything by reiterating how much I like your work. Did I mention I’m a fan of your work?
It’s difficult to overestimate how effective this strategy is. Why? Because anyone who creates anything (science, a podcast, writing, whatever it is) knows that mostly people only go out of their way to give you feedback when they think you’re wrong. Science is the most direct example of this. Listen to the way scientists talk to one another, especially in the Q&A after a talk. The only things that come up are points of concern and areas of potential improvement. So creators hear plenty about criticism of their own work—not to mention are usually their own biggest critics. It’s much rarer to have someone who truly appreciates your work reach out to really express what it’s meant to them. It’s powerful.
This isn’t even to mention the fact that desire for recognition—to be regarded as eminent—accounts for at least part of every successful academic’s path. It’s not the only reason why someone gets into the game. But for anyone who has already won the game, it’s almost certainly going to be a factor. This is what they’ve done all this work for. To hear from people like you that it was worth it!
And this isn’t to say that you should be disingenuous. If you can’t genuinely think of an explanation of why you think this person’s work is cool, then why are you reaching out to talk to them? If it’s just because they're famous—well, okay, maybe think about why that fame is well-deserved. If you can’t, then find someone else whose work you actually do admire.
Also, the more specific the better. Everyone is going to know about the best-selling book that put them on the map. Talk about how, as great as that best-seller is, your favorite piece of theirs is this slightly obscure, in your opinion under-cited work. Talk about a specific chapter within the book. If you can show that you’ve seriously engaged in their work, understood it for what it is, and appreciated it in a deep way—why on earth would they not want to talk with you about it?
So, yeah, go ahead and lay it on thick. Schmooze them up a bit. But have it come from a place that legitimately reflects what you think about them and what they’ve been up to all these years. And now that you’ve established yourself as a serious consumer of their work and engendered some good vibes, they’re ready to hear what you have to say.
Again, my opening line here is clear, concise boilerplate. Depending on how I’ve finished the first paragraph (like any transition, make sure it flows), I say something to the effect of: “I host a podcast, called Cognitive Revolution, and I’d love to have you as a guest.” I include the link to my show on iTunes, so they can see it’s a real thing and also have a look to see if any of their colleagues or people they know have been on. But frankly, I don’t think people care. What is going to sell them on your show at this point is not what it is but why you’re doing it. This is the fundamental point of the second paragraph: establish a compelling ‘why’ behind the show.
Why, in short, is their participation in your show worthwhile besides the fact it helps you, the host, out? My own show is about “the personal side of the intellectual journey.” So I have a few go-to earnest sentences about how we often only see the “finished product” of the people we look up to. For early career researchers, it’s important to see that eminent scientists also went through the same sort of struggles we now face. As there are very few built-in venues for this sort of thing in the scientific community, podcasts are a great medium to have this kind of conversation. That isn’t a description about why my show is great and how it has so many subscribers and how I ask all the BEST questions. It’s about why my show exists, what I think is important about it, and how a potential guest’s participation in it would contribute to a community they care about.
The point is to frame this request as in service of a larger goal (in my case, a service to the field by sharing personal narrative—which, I should hasten to point out, totally is a useful service!!) rather than merely furthering your own platform. You should spend less space on this section than you did the first. Equal-sized paragraphs at most.
Then there’s the final paragraph. This is by far the shortest. It is a very clear and very short ask: this is exactly what I’m asking you for. Then the recipient of the message can safely accept or decline the offer, without having to wonder what precisely this request entails. I start by recognizing what I’m imposing on them, by acknowledging that I know they’re already overburdened as it is. Then I ask for a one hour audio-only interview, to be recorded remotely, at a time of their choosing. It will also, I ensure them, be fun. Anyway, this is the crucial part so I’ll say it again. Short and clear.
From there, I say ‘thanks’ and sign my initials.
Proofread. Proofread once more.
I also have a theory about when it’s best to send these cold emails—a theory, I should point out, which is totally unsupported by any actual data. Nonetheless, I usually schedule these emails to be sent (using Gmail’s schedule send function: the down-arrow next to 'Send') so that they arrive on Tuesday afternoon local time.
On Monday you’re overwhelmed by everything you have to do this coming week and are therefore disinclined to take on more tasks. Then by the second half of the week you’re exhausted from everything you’ve worked on and shutter at the idea of agreeing to do more. Tuesday is peak scheduling-optimism.
Afternoon, because people have already had lunch, they’ve probably just had their midday coffee, and they’ve also had a chance to get into the momentum of the day. My hunch is that people are more generous around that time than, say, when they first wake up.
Like I said, I have no evidence that this theory actually holds any water. But it sounds good, right?
Anyway, this is a format that I’ve had a lot of success with. It’s hard to put actual numbers to, because I don’t know how likely the average cold email is to elicit a positive response. But my hit rate is surprisingly high. Given that I’m asking people to give me their time, that they’ve never heard of me, and I’m drawing from a population that is notoriously overworked, I constantly am amazed by the graciousness with which people are willing to take the time to talk to me. I’ve never calculated the exact number, but I’d say about 2/3 of the people I email accept the invitation. Just as crucially, almost everyone responds to this email. There’s only a few people whom I’ve contacted at a reliable address who failed to reply.
If anything, I've found that people whom I don’t know are more likely to say yes than people I do know. Why? Probably because it’s difficult to frame the request as a “service to the field” rather than a “personal favor” when it’s someone I know and have corresponded with in the past. Another explanation would be that the people who know me know, shall we say, too much. Those who don't know me don’t know any better. This is at least one plausible explanation of the effect, and you’re welcome to believe that. I’m going to go with the first theory.
Anyway, if you’ve ever tried to email a professor for something, even one whom you work directly for and has requested that you send her an email, then you’ll know what a ~100% response rate means. I’ll leave you with that as my primary evidence in support of this approach.
Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider subscribing. I put out long-form content like this every week or two—depending on how long it takes to do the piece to the best of my ability. Sharing and subscribing is a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.
Also — keep an eye out for more posts on my best practices for what I’ve learned from hosting the Cognitive Revolution podcast. More to come soon!
What I’ve been listening to this week: In the Jungle Groove by James Brown.
It’s not his most straight-ahead funk album. You don’t get the same groove that you’d get in the big-name tunes you’ve likely already heard from the Godfather of Soul. This one’s more gospel, more soul-driven. Which makes for a nice sustainable energy that keeps you going in whatever you’re doing without arresting your attention entirely. For more of that sweet, sweet funk, check out the top songs from his back-up band, The JBs.
Those trombone solos. Oh, man.