More than 100 trillion email messages are sent each year, and 90% of them are junk. In fact, by some estimates, the average person receives 2,200 of these ‘spam’ emails annually. For some reason (ostensibly profit), virtual hucksters are determined to offer us all discounts on Viagra, no matter what security algorithm stands in their way! Thus, we have become sensitized to ‘spam’ as it evades even our best attempts to block and filter it.


As you begin developing your ‘Personal Board of Directors,’ it’s important to keep this in mind. As I’ve mentioned previously, email is my preferred means of approaching potential board members because it allows me time to carefully craft my request and affords each recipient a low-pressure opportunity to reply at her own convenience. Nonetheless, even the most well articulated email approach will not work if the message gets caught in the spam filter or ignored! Fortunately, you can stack the odds in your favor with a little intentionality. In this post, I’m going to show you how to tailor your emails in such a way that they will be acknowledged and read instead of ignored and deleted.

There are five main guidelines to consider when approaching a potential personal board member:

1) Be Polite and Professional – The general tone of your approach should be polite and professional. Of course, tone will vary depending on the nature of your relationship with the person you are contacting, but this principle holds true. While candor may be appropriate in some situations, remember that an element of formality will encourage the recipient to take your request more seriously. Also be sure to proofread your email before you send it. We’ve all heard horror stories about imprudent email missteps resulting in disaster for unwary senders. Chances are you’ve also received email messages with glaring mistakes in grammar, spelling, and syntax. How do you react when you receive an email containing these types of mistakes? Sloppiness reflects poorly on the sender. Like it or not, these oversights call your credibility into question. Perfection is not required, but a multitude of overt errors may be a deal-breaker! Ask someone for assistance if your skills in this area are lacking.

2) Nail the Subject Line – Research indicates that short, relevant email subject lines work best. They draw the recipient’s attention and summarize the email’s content thereby causing a sense of anticipation and increasing the ‘open-rate.’ I also like to include details to demonstrate that I am not one of the aforementioned hucksters. For example, if I am contacting a person who recently spoke at an event I attended, my subject line might say, “Thank you for speaking at the JBEL Symposium last Thursday!” Alternatively, if there is a specific topic I am really interested in getting the recipient’s perspective on, my subject line might say, “Questions re: Domestic Practice and Overseas Philanthropy.” Note that these subject lines immediately imply that I am a real person with something unique to say. It’s also worth mentioning that you should NOT mark the email as urgent! Building your ‘Personal Board of Directors’ is certainly important, but it does not require the recipient to take immediate action. Don’t imply that it does, or you risk irritating your potential board member before you’ve even gotten your foot in the door.

3) Get Straight to the Point – The body of your email should be succinct and generally contain a short introduction (where necessary) and your reason, objective, and request. Here’s where your preparation comes in: If you’ve developed your overarching ‘why’ and done the cross-referencing suggested in previous posts, this part is easy because you’ve already got all the information established. Just incorporate it into the email! If not, this is going to take a while because you need a legitimate, compelling reason to ask this person to take time away from her other priorities!

  • Reason – Make sure to clearly indicate your reason for wanting to connect. Note that it may not be effective to say that you’re developing a ‘Personal Board of Directors’ at this point because your candidate may not be familiar with the concept. Instead, think of this as the invitation to an informal interview in which you’ll try to verify if the individual is a good fit. Tell the candidate why you’re interested in her, and leave it at that. Make it complimentary, but genuine – not flattery.
  • Objective – State what you hope to achieve via further conversation. If you have some specific questions, say so. Sometimes I throw a few into the body of the email, and end by indicating that I still have several more. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of a field or profession, take that approach instead. Once again, sincerity is key: Don’t claim to have questions if you don’t; Don’t claim to be interested if you’re not.
  • Request – Make your request for a meeting or phone conversation reasonably limited in duration, and err on the side of being too conservative. I generally ask for 30 minutes (regardless of whether I’m asking for a phone call or a meeting). It’s easier for the other person to commit to 30 minutes than a full hour, and it provides each of us with a concrete expectation. It also provides me with an out if things don’t go well! Alternatively, if we’ve got a great connection, I can still leave extending the meeting to my contact’s discretion.

4) It’s about you – BUT it’s not about you – Remember that you’re not trying to impress your potential board member with your achievements or qualifications, so don’t allow your email to become a litany or resume. You sought him out because you’re impressed by his accomplishments or value his perspective. Your intentionality will speak for itself! For example, in December I met with a seasoned attorney who told me that only one other law student had contacted him in 2011! I pressed further and he elaborated that, in his 30 years of practice, he has never had more than four law students or young attorneys approach him to build a professional networking relationship in a given year. Rest assured that your initiative alone puts you in rare air!

5) Say Thank You – You’ve heard parents exhorting their toddlers about this in public. In fact, I can still hear my mom’s voice instructing me to thank the grocery store checkout clerk for the lollipop she used to give me at the end of each week’s shopping trip. I’m reasonably certain that my wide-eyed confidence in the obligatory lollipop reward inspired a great deal of obedience and probably saved me from a few spankings. Now it’s my turn to remind you: Say thank you! End your email by expressing your thanks in advance, and a sense of anticipation. While you may actually feel nervous or uncomfortable, it’s a positive anxiety so don’t forget to let your potential board member know that you’re excited about the opportunity to speak with her. This also re-assures her that you respect her time and appreciate its value.

Example: My first email to Mark:

Good Afternoon Mark,

I hope this message finds you well. I am very excited for the chance to speak with you, and thankful that Matt was able to facilitate the connection!

To provide you with some context, I am in the third year of a four year JD/MBA program at Pepperdine, and am being very intentional about connecting with leaders who can help me understand where/how I can apply my business/legal training in areas I’m passionate about. Of course, [——-] is one organization with some awesome cutting-edge ministries and advocacy programs ([——-], in particular). Accordingly, I’d very much like to get coffee or lunch with you sometime soon to hear some of your thoughts. My schedule is quite flexible on Thursdays and Fridays – perhaps one of those would work for you in the next few weeks?

Thank you, once again!


Although I have edited the text to protect Mark’s identity, you can see that the first email I sent Mark follows the guidelines suggested above: I start by expressing excitement and referencing the mutual acquaintance who connected us so that Mark remembers who I am. I then offer a brief introduction that references my overarching ‘why’ (i.e., connecting with leaders) and my reason/objective for the conversation (i.e., to hear his thoughts relative to his current position). Though I don’t explicitly limit the duration – something I learned to do later – I do ask specifically for coffee or lunch. (We ended up doing coffee at his office.) Finally, I close by thanking him once again.

Note that the concepts discussed above are generally applicable regardless of what method of approach you choose. In other words, if you prefer phone calls to emails, the general tone should still be polite and professional, etc… Either way, I recommend you start by approaching ‘Personal Board of Directors’ candidates you already know. This will allow you to build positive momentum by enjoying quicker success and garnering constructive criticism without having to step too far outside your current comfort zone. Go for the low-hanging fruit, establish the beginnings of your ‘Personal Board of Directors,’ and then use their feedback to help you hit your stride. After all, that’s what they’re there for!

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a series dedicated to helping you learn to develop your own ‘Personal Board of Directors.’ If you found this post helpful, be sure not to miss the others – subscribe to this blog via the link in the upper right hand corner!

Leave a Comment: Are there any additional ‘rules of thumb’ you employ to write high-quality, professional-sounding emails?

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