How to Ask a Stranger for a Favor

Written by Lynn Gaertner-Johnston, Syntax Training
business-English learn correspondence, how to write email
I regularly receive email from strangers who would like answers to their writing questions or help with their writing. Some of the messages, like this one, annoy me: 

Send me the tips for taking effective minutes at meetings. Thanks.
As you can see, that message includes no greeting, no introduction, no close, no name, and no identifying information. 

The following message is just the opposite: 

Dear Lynn, 

I have been reading your blog for years, and I have learned a lot from it. Thank you for sharing your expertise. 

There is one writing topic I have not found on your site. It’s the difference between “what” and “which.” For example, is it correct to write “What book did you order?” or “Which book did you order?”

If you have time, would you please cover this topic on your blog? Or if you would like to answer me directly, that would be fine too. 

With appreciation, 

Marie (last name)
(company name) 

Which message do you think is more likely to inspire an answer? 

At work, you may need to make requests of strangers. They may know little or nothing about your job. Even if they work for the same company, they may have no investment in your success. Yet you may need their help to succeed. 
How can you write so strangers respond positively? Apply these tips.

1. Greet your reader. 
If you are complete strangers at different companies, use a formal greeting: Dear Mr. Albert. 

If you are not certain of the person’s gender and cannot confirm it online, use the full name: Dear Chris Wilson. 

If you work for the same company, follow the style of your coworkers: Hello David. 

2. Introduce yourself and give your reader helpful context. Examples: 

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

I work on Jeff Liu’s team in New York, and I am writing to ask you for some scheduling information.
I have been happily following you online for several years. I would like permission to publish an excerpt from your latest article. 

3. Let the reader know why you are writing to him or her rather than someone else. Examples: 

You have been recommended as the in-house expert on usability issues. 

I am hoping that as Randy Sun’s admin, you will have ideas for tracking down this information. 

My research online has led to you. 

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

Can you please handle this credit card discrepancy? 

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

If you can let us know by tomorrow, we will be very grateful. The proposal is due on Friday. 

5. 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 team expects your group to comply with these kinds of requests.”

6. If you can offer information or a favor to the other person, do so:

I will be happy to send you a copy of our results. 

If I can return the favor, please let me know. 

7. When you have covered all the details your reader will need, close politely. If you work in the United States or Canada and are 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.

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

Nathan Jacobsen
Leader, Learning and Development Team 
Global Incorporated 

The tips above do not guarantee a positive response, of course. But they increase your chances dramatically. Good luck!

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This blog is Zoe's way to spread the joy of finding and learning interesting bits about English. Join her and learn something new every time.

2 responses to “How to Ask a Stranger for a Favor”

  1. wscottling says :

    Of course it all boils down to the golden rule: a little politeness goes a long way. 🙂

  2. Phil says :

    I’d add, “Don’t appear to be trying to get me to do all your work for you.”

    I used to work at a vegetable research centre and we recieved loads of requests from students along the lines of “I have to write a paper on ???? Please send me all the information you have on ????”.

    They all went in the bin – our staff would help but all had better things to do than do all someones university work to save them putting in a few hours in the library.

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