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How to Ask a Stranger for a Favor

Today I received an email from a stranger. The entire message said this:

When sending a letter to a Judge and his wife I believe the address should read The Honorable John and Mrs. Smith. What is the correct salutation?
Thank you.

The message included no greeting, no introduction, no close, no name, no identifying information, and no encouragement to respond.

A month ago I received this message with no punctuation, again from a stranger:

Send me the tips for taking effective minutes of meeting

Both messages would have required work on my part. For the first, I would need to consult one of my reference books to be certain about the answer. For the second, I would have to think about whether the writer was referring to any specific meeting minute tips I had ever mentioned. Then I would have to find and send them.

I confess that I did not answer the question or send the tips. It was too much trouble to accommodate a stranger who had not taken the time to compose a thoughtful message. Given my other priorities, I chose to spend my time doing other things.

Often we have to make business requests of strangers. They may know little about our work and care nothing about our success. Although they may work for the same company we do, they may work on the other side of the globe while we are asleep.

How can we write so strangers respond positively? Here are some tips.

Greet the reader. If you have never been introduced, use a formal greeting. If you are not certain of the person’s gender, use the full name:

Dear Mr. Khose:
Dear Pino Cinabro,

Introduce yourself:

As a team member on the billing software project, I am writing to ask for your help on a data question.

I work in the New York office, and I am writing to ask you for some scheduling information.

Use good manners. Avoid being bossy or abrupt. Say please, appreciate, and grateful. Share your own deadlines and the reason for them, but ask if a deadline is workable for the other person:

Mr. Jerome has asked me for this information before the weekend. Is it possible for you to send it to me by then?

Avoid any heavy-handed we/you or us/you language, especially if you are in the home office and the other person is far away.

Avoid sentences like this one: Our office expects your group to comply with last-minute requests.

Instead write something like this: This deadline is very important to our success with the client, and we will appreciate any special efforts to get us the information right away. Can you help us?

When you have covered all the details your reader will need, close politely. If you are an American or a Canadian writing to people in other countries, allow yourself to be more flowery than you might normally be:

Mr. Khose, I look forward to reading your opinions on the product design. I send my very best wishes to you and your colleagues.

Include your name, along with a complete signature block that helps to identify you:


Nathan Jacobsen
Leader, Learning and Development Team
Global Incorporated

It is difficult enough to get a positive response in email from someone you know. Writing to a stranger requires special care and thoughtfulness. Good luck starting new friendships.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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