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How to Write an Effective Inquiry Letter

Have you ever read about someone and thought, That person has my dream job! Or have you been introduced to someone at a conference and wondered to yourself, I wonder how they got to where they are? It may seem odd to just come right out and say to them (in one very excited breath), “I THINK YOU’RE AWESOME, I WANT TO KNOW ALL ABOUT YOUR LIFE, LET’S BE BEST FRIENDS!” That’s why I think of an inquiry letter as a way to achieve an answer to those questions without the threat of coming across too strong. In this blog post, I will detail:

  1. When it is appropriate to write an inquiry letter;
  2. What forms an inquiry letter can take; and
  3. What your inquiry letter should include.

To Write or Not to Write an Inquiry Letter: That is the Question

In my field, it’s common to come across lots of different thinkers or presentations that are exciting. I have been tempted to contact everyone I think is awesome. However, as the saying goes, time is money and it would take a lot of time to contact everyone I think is cool.

As a result, I like to ask myself the following questions before I reach out to someone:

  1. Is their work closely aligned to what I am currently doing or what I hope to be doing?
  2. Do they have a connection to me or someone I know that I can leverage?
  3. Do I have the time to devote to building a relationship with this person? Do they have the time to devote to building a relationship with me?

I will go through each question and explain why it is important to ask this before you send an inquiry letter.

Is their work closely aligned to what I am doing or hope to be doing?

It’s important that your inquiry letter have a purpose. You want to let the individual you are contacting know that you aren’t some random person reaching out to them from the Internet. Therefore, it will be important that you are able to articulate clearly why it is you are contacting them specifically. Connecting your inquiry to your own professional goals is fundamental before you hit “send” on any form of communication.

Do I have a connection with them that I can leverage?

As I’m sure you know, emails (if that’s the form your inquiry letter takes) can get sent to the spam folder in no time at all. It would be best, if you are spending the time crafting a letter to get to know more about a person’s career trajectory, that you do the extra digging and see if you belong to any similar networks, graduated from the same schools, or worked for someone that can serve as your point of introduction. You would hate for your note to get lost in the junk mail! If you find a connection, use it. Ask that alumni network to facilitate an introduction, or send an email from your old school email address. The whole point here is to make sure that your inquiry letter is read.

Do I have the time to build a relationship? Do they?

I see inquiry letters as network building opportunities. You don’t necessarily have to be best buds, but you should have devoted enough time to cultivate a relationship; after all, no one likes feeling used.

Do a quick self assessment about the time you can devote to the relationship, and check and see if they also have the time. However, if you are on the fence about sending an inquiry letter because you aren’t sure you (or they) have the time, go ahead and send it; better to err on the side of building your professional network.

In fact, you should think about inquiry letters as a key step to building your network. Check out this video by Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organizational Behavior at INSEAD Business School, about how to do just that.

I consider myself a bit of an introvert, so traditional networking events usually exhaust me. I don’t feel like I put my best foot forward in them. However, when sending inquiry letters, I feel like I have given the time and thought into meeting one specific individual in a way that works well for me; I’ve been able to cultivate some great relationships that way.

Does an inquiry letter have to be a letter?

I am probably one of the most old-school young people I know; if you read one of my earlier blog posts on writing thank you notes after interviews, you would know that it took a while for me to move away from sending a handwritten note.

That being said, I understand (even if I don’t use it) that individuals make connections all over the place. Twitter is especially fruitful for making interest-based (but not geographically bound) connections. My general rule of thumb is this: Use the form where you believe you will have the most meaningful conversation with the person. If they are always on Twitter and seem relatively accessible, use that! If you know they check their LinkedIn profile, go for that. And, as is my go-to, try and find an email address and a connection to leverage and contact the individual that way. To me, the form the inquiry takes is less important than the fact that you are building a network.

The Nuts and Bolts: What to Include in your Inquiry Letter

Your inquiry letter shouldn’t be a novel. You want to get to the point quickly while still communicating to the individual your hope to start a conversation about their career path and interests. Here’s a rough format that may be useful (again, this is if you reach out via email):

First 1-3 sentences: How you got the person’s contact information and why you are reaching out to them

Next 2-3 sentences: Why you want to learn from this person, including any relevant details about yourself

Final 1-2 sentences: An explanation of how you would like the person to respond (e.g., I would love to grab coffee and continue the conversation! Or, I would love to talk to you via phone or Skype at your earliest convenience.)

I follow a similar format, albeit longer, when I write a cover letter. I call it—and I didn’t invent this, so props to whoever did!—the “I love you, you love me, let’s get married” format. The first section is all about why you want to get to know them better, the second section is all about how you are well suited to talk to or spend time on, and the last section gives the individual something concrete to respond to.

Sometimes, if it seems appropriate, I provide an attachment of my CV or resume if it will give the individual I am reaching out to an idea of who I am and my own interests.

I hope you have found this guide helpful, and that you feel empowered to start building your professional network today! To help you put these tips into practice, feel free to check out our Professional Writing lessons to make your business writing the best it can be.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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