Business schools and career centers have taught the wrong lesson: when trying to get noticed (for a job, an informational interview, etc.) send an email (those used to be called “cover letters”) that succinctly tells your story, touts your credentials and all the amazing things you have done.
The reason it’s poor advice is because for a job or an organization that’s special enough to deserve you, you won’t standing out from the crowd based just on what you’ve done and what’s on your resume. There are too many great and accomplished people out there sending too many emails that look more or less like yours, so you can no longer distinguish yourself by a record of accomplishment. You distinguish yourself by how much you care (and I don’t mean caring about getting that interview, I mean caring about doing something of value, of giving more than receiving); and you might distinguish yourself by work that you’ve done that we can see, feel and touch.
Your opportunity is to put effort into helping the person you want to connect with – offer them something of interest, something relevant to their work, an article they might not have found that they’d like to read, and explain why it connects to what they’re doing. Create something that might help them meet their goals. Share an insight, an actual insight, that they’ll want to hear. Reciprocal exchange has a long history, and it doesn’t work because I am obliged to do something for you, it works because you showed that you care enough to do something of value to me, and I want to return that favor.
The reason people don’t do this is because it requires shifting the time/effort asymmetry away from the person asking for help. In 30 minutes you could send a reasonably similar email to 30 people asking for 30 minutes of their time. But it might take you four hours to do something remarkable to get one meeting with one person. The worst part is that you might do all that work and still not get the meeting.
And that’s exactly why doing that work makes you stand out from the crowd.