As a recruiting consultant, I write a lot (i.e. hundreds per week) of cold emails to potential candidates in the hopes that someone, anyone, will be interested in learning more about the job I’m hiring for. One thing that’s universally understood amongst cold email writers: it’s a numbers game.
You can’t always predict who is going to answer your cold email and who is going to ignore it. You might have found the perfect candidate — qualified, interest-aligned, a solid tenure under their belt — but it just so happens that the day you send your email is a horrible day, and they are now rage-deleting their entire inbox. You might be reaching out to an iffy candidate — one who only barely meets your specifications and has no visible reason for wanting this job — only to find out that they have a secret passion for the business that dates back to childhood yet is indiscernible on their resumé.
My biggest takeaway from this relentless numbers game is this: don’t write off an email — anything can happen.
Even if it seems unlikely that a person will be interested in what you have to say, you can still optimize the chances that, if the person reads your email, something piques their interest — in the job, the company, or more generally, yourself.
Piquing interest in yourself as a person is the most underutilized but powerful strategy. One way to do this is to show genuine attention to the subject as a person with a busy life and a busy inbox. It creates a connection on a human-to-human level, which trumps business-to-human any day.
That’s why the secret to writing an email when there’s already a low probability that the person will respond is simply this: acknowledge why it’s improbable that they’ll respond.
Why does this work? The subject sees that you’ve taken the time to empathize with them, which makes them want to empathize with you in return. They can see that you understand why they could, would, even should coldly ignore you, but are asking them not to. It’s like saying, “Hey, you’re human, I’m human — I get it.”
Suddenly, you’re not just an anonymous recruiter using an email template with a handful of fill-in-the-blanks, but a person trying to connect with another person — and suddenly, your chances of getting a response are a whole lot higher.
The Secret Formula
Now, let’s get practical. There’s a little formula I like to use that acknowledges why it’s improbable that the subject will respond but still encourages them to do so:
“I know you… but in case you… I’d love to…”
The “I know you…” clause is where you acknowledge the improbability of the situation.
The “but in case you…” clause is where you surmise a reason why the improbable is not actual.
The “I’d love to…” clause is where you specify a simple call-to-action.
I couple this main formula with phrases like “so I know it’s a long shot” or “I know the answer’s probably a no” to drive home the idea that, yes, I see and acknowledge the improbability of the situation, but am trying anyway.
Here are some low-probability scenarios I’ve encountered in recruiting and examples of how to acknowledge them.
Example 1: They just started at a new company.
“I know you only recently started at X, but in case it’s not quite what you expected or you’d like to connect for the future, I’d love to hop on a call to open a line of communication.”
Example 2: They just started a new position at their company.
“I know you just started a new position as X (congratulations, by the way!), but in case you’re interested in what that position looks like at another company, I’d love to hop on a call to tell you more about the role here.”
Example 3: They have a long tenure at the same company.
“I know you’re probably very invested in your work at X, but in case you’re looking for a new challenge, I’d love to hop on a call to discuss some of the exciting work we have going on over here.”
Example 4: Their work history is on point, but their current work isn’t.
“I know you’ve been doing more managerial work lately, but in case you miss the thrill of being an individual contributor, I’d love to hop on a call to discuss the kind of hands-on work we’re looking to get done.”
Example 5: The job is a bit of a leap from their current and past work.
“I know your focus is more on X, but in case you’ve ever been curious about Y, I’d love to hop on a call to talk more about how your skillset might apply to a new kind of role.”
Using this formula, I’ve received positive responses from handfuls of low-probability candidates, usually with a kind nod to my strategy along the lines of, “Thank you for actually taking the time to understand my situation.”
This strategy — acknowledging improbability — can be used in any number of cold emails, not just recruiting ones. Use it whenever you’d like to show that you know what a crazy world we live in but are still doing your thing in spite of it.
Bonus: What Happens When You Don’t Acknowledge Improbability?
It didn’t take me long to learn my lesson, but there’s a learning curve for everything. At best, the subject will simply ignore your email. At worst, you’ll receive a scathing response such as:
“Clearly, you didn’t read even read my profile or you’d know that I just started at X.”
“If you even bothered to read my resume, you’d know that I don’t do design work anymore because I’m a manager now.”
“Why the hell would I want to leave a company after one month? Lol, nice try recruiter.”