I just received a random email from a stranger in which they ask me 5-10 hard-to-answer questions on effective altruism, emotional health, and moral cluelessness that bother them.


Reflecting on this, I came up with a list of eight rules of thumb you might want to consider when you cold message someone. You might not want to address all of them in every message (because that contradicts no. 8), but they may be a good pointer towards what would make people keener to respond:

 

1. Add a one-sentence introduction so they know how to interact with you.

2. Make clear how you got hold of their email address.

3. Make clear why they may want to talk to you.

4. Make clear why you think they are the right person to solve your problem.

5. Courteously emphasize that you don't mind if they are too busy to respond.

6. Start or end with a note of appreciation or gratitude.

7. Ask for their permission *before* you dump a long list of questions or any other kind of work on them. To minimize friction and time investment for them, add your list of questions to the first email right away. However, make clear that it is okay and encouraged for them to say *no*. For example, lead with a sentence like "Here are some questions I'm trying to answer for myself. Of course, no worries if you are too busy to help me with that."

8. Keep the message as short and clear as possible.

 

Let me know if there's anything you find valuable that I overlooked.

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21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:48 PM

tl;dr: Inform your recipient if you're asking multiple people the same thing

FWIW I also got the same email (I think the person might have been going through a list of practicing coaches and messaging some or all of them) and I considered it rude not to be informed this is a copy-paste message they are reaching out to several people with. This would perhaps be a lesser problem for people who are following the rest of the advice, but in any case I would recommend being transparent when you're reaching out to multiple people who are quite busy, so they can make an informed decision and perhaps coordinate who responds to you. As it is, it feels like they are thoughtlessly maximising the amount of responses they get at the expense of the recipients' time, with an end result where most of the messages have overlapping content and are therefore wasted effort. I don't think they did this on purpose, which is why OP and I considered it a good idea to post this PSA for other people to learn from.

Additionally, I have paying clients with similar issues, so perhaps consider offering to pay me for a session rather than asking for free coaching, or explain why that's not an option.

[-]gjm2y50

It's not just that they're thoughtlessly maximizing responses at the expense of recipients' time: recipients are liable to notice this, be annoyed by it, and therefore be less likely to respond as a result. So maybe they're (in some sense) trying to maximize responses and not caring about recipients' time, but in practice they aren't even doing that; they could probably get more responses by being a bit more thoughtful and polite.

Wouldn't this lead to some bystander effect?

Great list, thanks.

I think for 7. there is a possible alternative:

Writing something like "In the case that you would be willing to answer my questions I have included them below this mail" and putting them in at the end of the mail (below the closing of the e-mail).

This could have advantages for both sides:

  1. The recipient can, if they choose, have a short look at the questions and decide based on that whether they want to answer. They don't run the risk of saying "yes" and then being confronted with a time investment they didn't want to make once they read the questions in a second mail.
  2. Maybe the questions are interesting for the recipient (increasing the likelihood of them answering).
  3. If the questions are easy to answer and the mail reaches the recipient at a time when he is able and willing to answer them it is not necessary for them to answer the mail and then wait for the questions.

4. asking "would you answer my questions" and only with a confirmation, later, telling those questions wastes time and mental energy of the person being asked (i.e. they need to spend time considering the first question, replying to it and only then receive the real communication)

Reminds me of a blog post I read a long time ago where a writer told a story how a high school student requested a sort of interview for a class project. The student essentially wrote the whole interview, including the writer's answers and said "if you want to take time to write your own answers I will be grateful, but in case that would take too much of your time, here is what I gathered from your writing, if you think something needs to be corrected, please tell me". The writer was delighted especially because it was so easy for her to say "yes" to the student

Thanks for your comments! I corrected point 7 now.

Agreed, I'd consider that fine.

This list of email scripts from 80,000 Hours also seems useful here https://80000hours.org/articles/email-scripts/

As an elaboration on 5:

If a very minimal answer is helpful, emphasize that this is the case. For example, if I'm emailing an expert on some topic I don't know very much about, I will add something like "I would be grateful for any direction on this, even if it's just the names of some relevant authors"

In my experience, people are often pretty good at putting together a low-cost-to-them, but highly-valuable-for-me answer. For example, they'll say something like "This was well-studied by <names> several years ago, but basically the answer is <one or two sentence response that lacks details and might be a bit high-context for me, but is nonetheless helpful>"

If there's a succinct way to convey your background, this can make it easier for the person to write a short response that is useful to you (though this can quickly go against 8, if you're not careful). For example, I once emailed a guy who studies bird aerodynamics and after explaining my question, I added the context that I have a PhD in physics. He gave me a very short, but very helpful answer that was only possible by using some physics jargon.

I wanted to say that I read through the whole sequence and I find the content to be general, watered down and somewhat insulting of the reader's intelligence. Except maybe the last post in the sequence about CRM, that was actually decent. But the way I want to be productive with this comment, is that we should really stop speaking about trivial fundamentals as if we're somehow really preaching something here. I'd see reason in introducing the fundamentals to then theorize something, hence why I liked the CRM post, but I wouldn't call this a networking game manual the same way I wouldn't call a linear algebra class that if they're teaching us about how to sum and multiply 

what do you mean by "know how to interact with you"? what should the one-sentence introduction consist of that conveys this?

This is one of the points I'm less sure about because often enough, the rest of the message will implicitly answer it. In addition, what to include is highly dependent on context and who you are writing to.

Two very general recommendations:
- Something that helps the other person gauge how long the inferential distances between you two are, so that communication can be as quick as possible and as thorough as necessary.
- Something that helps them gauge your level of seniority. It's unfortunate but true that the time of people a couple levels of seniority above your own is extremely valuable. For example, it would hardly make sense for a Nick Bostrom to make time for helping a bright-but-not-Einstein-level high school student he never met decide which minor to choose in university. If people can't gauge your level of seniority, they might misjudge whether they are the right person for you to talk to, and then you might end up in a conversation that is extremely awkward and a waste of time for either side.

Some examples:
- "Hi! I'm xyz, Ops lead at Linear."
- "Hi! I'm a computer science undergrad at Atlantis University and a long-time lurker on LessTrue."
- ...

For me, I'd add 0: Don't.  A public note or post that something's available for me to opt into is fine (in related forums), but otherwise leave me alone unless I've explicitly asked to be contacted.

Highly depends on your role and personality I guess.

As a community builder and someone pretty high on extraversion, I'm generally happy to add more people to my loose network. If there's just a bit of overlap between my and a stranger's interests, I expect there to be a far higher upside than downside risk to us knowing that the other exists and what they work on. Of course, I may change my opinion on this over time while my time becomes more valuable and my loose network larger.

Any generalizable rules you can think of about whom better not to cold message at all?

Any generalizable rules you can think of about whom better not to cold message at all?

Yes.  Contact people you see posting on sites with a norm for individual contact on random topics (I don't know what those are, but I don't think it's LW).  Contact people whose profile description asks you to contact them.  Contact people if they post or comment that they'd like to be contacted.

Judgement call to contact people you have a comment exchange with that you want to explore further (I'd argue this isn't "cold").

Otherwise, leave them alone.

You can, of course, solicit contacts by setting up your profile and posting or shortform-ing that you'd like to be contacted.  That's way better than reaching out yourself to people you don't have any reason to believe want that.

 

Really, e-mail or DM on a site is ALMOST NEVER the right way to initiate "cold" contact.  That's what posts are for.

Thanks, I didn't take into account that people might read this as an encouragement to randomly message people on Lesswrong. And thanks for giving me more clarity about the implicit norms here.

To clarify: The person likely found my mail address on my homepage, where it is exactly for the reason that I'm generally happy to be contacted by strangers.

Ah, that's important context.  Putting your contact info on your public website is an invitation to be contacted.  It's probably best to specify there (perhaps on a "contact me" page, which has your info AFTER this) under what conditions you'd like to connect.

I'm surprised that this is a controversial comment - 8 votes for a net of 0!  

I haven't down-voted. The amount number of private messages that get sent on LessWrong seems to be quite low. 

For most topics, it makes sense to ask a question publically, but there are messages that are personalized enough that private messages make sense. I wouldn't like to have a public norm that forbids messages like "I really like what you wrote on X, can I hire you to research Y and write a post about it". When it comes to telling someone about typos in their post a private message is usually better than a comment. 

A net negative karma score suggests to me that a majority believes that your proposed policy is too strict. 

I didn't vote myself, but my feeling is that it's a combination of

  • Innocuous but mostly-irrelevant personal opinion;
  • Implicit unhelpful advice / criticism of OP.

Like, the literal content is mostly just "I don't like receiving cold emails". Okay, so why are you telling us this? If we assume you intended to communicate more than just the literal content, it becomes the advice/moralizing "don't send cold emails". But if that is what you intend, it's kind of passive-aggressive and it's not very helpful. If you think one should never send cold emails, why not? If you think there are circumstances where it's okay, which circumstances?

My current guess is that you didn't intend that advice/moralizing? But I still felt it in your comment, and I expect it's a large part of why you got downvoted.

Thanks.  My intent was to dissuade people from taking the post as "these are conditions you should cold-contact people on LW" (which is how I interpreted it), by pointing out that I'd prefer not to be contacted at all, even with the recommended information.