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How to Make an Email Introduction that Doesn’t Ruin Both People’s Lives

6 minute read

I’ve never admitted this publicly, but I’m a matchmaker. Not the romantic kind—the professional kind.

In 2015, I made at least 227 email introductions between people who didn’t know each other. An email intro is the ultimate five-minute favor: An act that costs you a tiny bit of time yet can be life-changing for others. The ones that went well were some of the most meaningful moments of my year: They helped people find agents for their books, investors for their startups, audiences for their speeches and jobs for their spouses. But to borrow a phrase from Longfellow, when intros were bad, they were horrid.

And by horrid, I mean so embarrassingly awful that I threw up in my mouth a little. I was thrilled to find an internship for a former student, only to learn that the work was so boring, he fell asleep at his desk. I did a touchdown dance when I lined up a co-author for a colleague, but she ended up stealing his ideas. Oh, and I took the liberty of introducing people I thought would be great friends…but I had already introduced them the year before. I did that twice. Oops. At least I’m consistent.

Lately, I’ve been taking stock of my hits and misses—and reflecting on the intros I’ve received and witnessed. These are my rules for making a great email intro.

1. Go beyond the obvious similarities
To hit it off, people need to have something in common. But that’s the first place where most intros go wrong: You can’t highlight just any similarity. The best connections are based on what I’ve come to call uncommon commonalities—rare similarities.

The worst intros I received last year were based on garden-variety similarities. When someone connected me to another professor, I didn’t see him as a kindred spirit (I already spend way too much time with dudes who wear tweed jackets with elbow patches). But when I was introduced to a fellow psychologist who also moonlights as a magician, I was thrilled—I don’t know that many people who share my love of social science and card tricks.

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Don’t take my word for what a big difference taking this extra step with your intros can make. Consider two guys who were connected in 1971 by a mutual friend who said they should meet because they both loved electronics and playing practical jokes. At the time, there weren’t that many pranksters tinkering with digital chips, so they shared something unusual. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak went on to start Apple together.

2. Avoid lopsided intros
If you’re connecting one person to help another, it can easily become a chore. The right intro opens the door to someone the recipient is eager to meet, not someone they feel obligated to assist. Look for a mutual benefit where two people can help each other. That way, instead of dumping a taker on a giver, you make it possible for both parties to feel like givers.

Within a few minutes of being connected to John Lennon by a classmate, Paul McCartney was teaching him how to tune a guitar. And Lennon was able to impart a thing or two about songwriting. If not for that mutually beneficial intro, the Beatles wouldn’t exist.

3. Ask permission before you jump in
Once you’ve spotted some uncommon commonalities between two people and you’re confident they can help each other, it’s tempting to just pull the trigger. But there may be some history between them. There’s a chance that one stole the other person’s sister’s boyfriend, or they might just be too swamped at the moment.

Read more: How Much Would You Make If You Were a Man?

When I’ve made the mistake of introducing people without seeking their permission, the poor victims have often sent me personal notes saying they’d appreciate it if I can ask them first in the future. Spare them the awkwardness, and check with both parties beforehand.

Once they opt in, you can send your intro with gusto, knowing you’re not going to end up accidentally destroying their souls.

4. Don’t misrepresent your relationship
Give the people you’re connecting clear context on how you know them. I learned the hard way that this is especially important when referring candidates for jobs.

Early in my teaching career, I was so focused on helping students that I did a disservice to employers. In one case, I gave an enthusiastic recommendation for an applicant I’d known for less than a month. Now, this is what I write:

  • “I’ve only had this student in class for three weeks, but I think she’s worth a close look for the following reasons…”
  • “Although I don’t know whether this colleague is ultimately the right fit for the job, I’ve been impressed by the interactions we’ve had. I noticed…”
  • 5. Ask the people you’ve introduced how you did
    The only way to get better in the future is to seek feedback on how your connecting has gone over in the past. After you write an email intro, put a note in your calendar for a month later to remind you to follow up and ask both people how it went—or use Intros for automatic prompts.

    6. Don’t make an introduction that makes you uncomfortable
    Most of my botched intros have happened when people asked me to connect them to someone I hardly knew. Rather than imposing on anyone, I should have just politely replied, “I would love to help, but I don’t know this person well enough to make this request. Here are two other people who might be helpful on this—let me know if you’d like me to reach out to either of them.”

    In one case, two strangers badgered me several times for intros to busy people…so I ended up connecting them to each other instead. It wasn’t quite a match made in heaven, but I like to think they learned something from the experience.

    Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and a New York Times bestselling author. He has a new book coming out in February, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Everything he writes is at www.adamgrant.net.

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