Experience, Writing

15: The Art of Email Introductions

January 28, 2018
many hands fistbumping

In my experience, a memorable introduction is a reliable way to create solid connection. I prefer in-person introductions because they allow me to convey my enthusiasm for the connection via body language and deeper storytelling, but email introductions can be memorable – and more practical. A written introduction affords you the space to tell a story, reinforced by relevant links and attachments, and leaves you with a convenient digital archive you can reference later.

A quick search of all 2017 messages in my gmail account for “intro,” “introduction,” or “introduce” yielded about 300 messages, representing 5% of my email. A similar search of my Intel Outlook account yielded 10% introductions. Most of these are requests from startup founders asking for advice or connections in my network, or work colleagues seeking mentorship or project help. Along the way I’ve accumulated some best practices for people requesting and making introductionsBelow, the Requestor is the person wanting the introduction. The Target is the person to whom the Requestor is being introduced. The Introducer is the intermediary that connects Requestor to Target.

Requesting an Introduction

  1. Be Direct about Your Need – An introduction is a request to borrow someone else’s network. The least you can do is be clear on why you need it. Sounds simple, but unclear intentions are the most frequent problem I encounter from people asking for introductions.  A bad example is “I am new here just want to learn more about this person.” This affords me no understanding of what you have in mind and makes me think you are wasting my time. If I lead an introduction with this, I’d be wasting my contact’s time too. A specific ask will make context and a reason clear: “This person is working in <a specific space> and I want to learn more about what challenges they face for a talk I’ll be giving.” See the difference? This one conveys the value of the connection and hints at what will be discussed.
  2. Make it Easy to Help You – Remove friction from contacting and helping you. Be proactive with dates, times, and communication methods. Prioritize dates and times that work for them. Don’t add steps to the process of connecting with you. Examples include switching the communication channel, asking your connection to click a link to choose a spot on your schedule (hint: they won’t), or requesting an NDA first. 
  3. Respond First – This is related to #2 but merits its own category. There is unwritten etiquette to responding to email introductions that doesn’t apply to personal introductions. The Requestor should be the first to respond.  This is actually a small display of deference to the person you need to contact and presents the opportunity to thank the Introducer and self-advocate. When you respond first, move the Introducer to the BCC (blind copy)  field to respect their inbox.
  4. Where are You Now?  – Remember that unwritten etiquette? Know that Introducers love to hear updates. I personally crave hearing the outcomes of a great connection. Take care to follow up with the Introducer within a month. A short note is all that’s necessary, especially with a great outcome.
    My friend Dave asked me for an introduction to an Intel Engineer (Andy) for a side project. I made the introduction and one month later, I saw an update on Dave’s project that included some breakthrough help from Andy. Great outcome, and now I know both parties are proactive!

Making Introductions

  1. Is this a Force Multiplier? – I receive a lot of introduction requests and sometimes will make connections unprompted. Each time I think about the benefits to both sides of the introduction- helping advance projects, bringing new creative talent together, connecting for funding, helping foster mentoring relationships, growing an ecosystem’s connectivity, and sometimes direct ROI.  I find that a “Give First” attitude provides much better results than a “What’s in it for me?” approach.  I proceed with introductions that benefit individuals and multiply the strength of my network.

    My friend Kyle B asked if he could introduce me to a friend (Jeff) who needed help 3D printing a cow. A Lifesize Cow. Kyle recognized that I needed a challenging project for my meetup group and Jeff needed someone who thinks like he did. We ended up needing each other and I did print (half) that cow.
  2. Give them an Out  – If you aren’t sure the target is interested or if there is a value imbalance (see above), consider asking your connection politely if they will read and respond to the introduction email.  This is your chance to advocate for the asking party.  In my experience, people will rarely turn down the request. If they do, you have a chance to learn what kinds of connections would help them. If you want to go one step further, consider the double opt-in.
  3. Balance of Power – This is personally important to me, since I work with a students, particularly disadvantaged ones. Consider if there is a power imbalance implied by race, gender, class that disadvantages the Requestor. This manifests as vulnerability, hesitation, or even impostor syndrome and merits advocating for the Requestor. An easy thing you can do is make the introduction and be more proactive about follow-up. I will sometimes facilitate an in-person meeting. This topic merits a whole post of its own!
  4. Choose the Right Channel – There are a lot of ways to connect with people. My preferred introduction channels are LinkedIn and old-fashioned email, as they create a searchable archive. Lately I’ve introduced people on Twitter, Instagram, and even Steam chat. The channel conveys important context and boundaries. A Twitter profile, for example, will provide clues on how that person engages discussion. LinkedIn, Steam, and Facebook offer opt-outs from conversation, if uninteresting or unwanted, while giving a clear signal back to the other parties.
  5. Saying NO Gracefully – Sometimes the introduction is too much to ask, too self-serving, or beyond your ability. In those cases, you should be quick to say NO. Don’t ignore/ghost or let the conversation drag on.  I have a few rules of thumb to prevent hurt feelings. First, respond with kindness. Maya Angelou once wrote – “They may forget what you said, they may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”  My person rule is to make them feel you care, but be firm on your boundaries. If you don’t know the other party – “I’m afraid I don’t know this person well enough to make the introduction.” If you checked (see above) and they passed – “I checked in with them and they respectfully declined for now.” If you don’t know the Requestor that well, I will ask them to write a detailed email explaining the need and how we know each other. Usually, they will opt out. If not, you know they are willing to put in time, so consider putting in yours. If you just don’t want to do it – “I can’t help you with that. Is there another way I can help you?”
  6. Dealing with Bad Actors When making introductions, be mindful about checking in, especially if you’ve been BCC’d (as recommended above). In rare cases, there will be bad behavior on the parts of the Requestor or Target. It’s important to listen to feedback reported to you, as how you respond will reflect on your reputation. I’ve heard of rudeness, sexism, and worse. I recommend listening to the reported behavior and taking it seriously each time. I tend to repeat it back so that I get the details right and follow up with the other party asking how the meeting went. This will usually prompt an account from their side. I tend to err on the side of believing people already in my network. They get the benefit of the doubt once. A second time and they receive no more introductions from me. This is harder when bad behavior happens between people you know and respect.

Anatomy of a Great Email Introduction

  • The SUBJECT LINE should be memorable and searchable. If I can’t make it catchy, I default to Introducing – <Requestor>/<Target>.
  • The BODY should contain three sections: one section addressed to the REQUESTOR, one to the TARGET, and one section on how to follow up with you. Relate a story, context, and an action in the first two sections.
    • The section for the REQUESTOR should include a greeting, an introduction by full name (and title) of the TARGET, and a STORY that highlights a remarkable fact about them. Be creative. Add CONTEXT about the specific reason they want the intro and how it relates to the TARGET’s interests. Be specific about what’s needed and how it’s connected to their world. The ACTION is something simple such as “connect and explain your project” or similar.
    • The section for the TARGET should provide full name (and title) of the REQUESTOR, and a STORY that highlights how you know the REQUESTOR. Be creative. Add CONTEXT about the specific reason they should listen to the REQUESTOR. Be specific about the value, if you can. The ACTION here reflects the action above, but may include an imperative such as “please make some time” and should convey urgency if there is time sensitivity.
    • The last section should indicate how to involve the Introducer. Oftentimes, I default to “I’ll let you take it from here” if I want them to continue on their own (Thanks to Rick Turoczy for that). If I want to stay involved, I’ll suggest a meeting or a joint ideation session. Either way, be clear about what you want.
  • I will sometimes hashtag the bottom of my email with keywords to make the introductions more searchable. Consider including a unique term. Mine is #connectioncraft

Here’s an example of a well-written introduction made by my friend Kyle on behalf of our (now) mutual friend Adam.


Kyle K [Introducer] reached out to me [Target] on Facebook asking if I’d take the introduction to Adam [Requestor]. He included the context (that I was facilitating Startup Weekend Maker Edition), background on Adam (his startup and IoT cred), and a specific ask (to consider him a coach). We connected, Adam became a judge, and made the weekend memorable. Where is he now? That weekend, Adam was introduced to a little company called Hackster.io. A few months later, I learned he become CEO of Hackster.io.

Introductions are part of Connection Craft – the art of connecting the right people, at the right time, to the right opportunities. I hope this guide will improve your email introductions to create more powerful, lasting networks.

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