The Art of Cold Calling

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

An updated version of this post is now available.

A few people have asked how we go about approaching potential workshop hosts. The short answer is, however we can; the longer answer is, we collect names any way we can—from journal articles, watching who follows us on Twitter, just bumping into people—and send emails like the one below to people who are publishing there. A few things to note:

  1. I always open by apologizing for adding to their inbox. (It's a Canadian thing...)
  2. Always establish a point of connection: "I read your paper on X" or "I was speaking to Y". This must be specific: "I recently read a paper of yours" sounds auto-generated (because it so often is).
  3. Explain how we're going to help make their lives better (e.g., "Your graduate students will be able to push your project XYZ ahead much faster if you let us help them").
  4. Be specific ("Here's our usual two-day curriculum") so that they can figure out right away whether this is worth pursuing.
  5. Cite our backers (currently the Sloan Foundation and Mozilla), as this makes us more credible. And while the example below doesn't do this, it helps to mention a recent workshop run for someone they know, or at somewhere they'd find impressive—again, credibility.
  6. Don't hide the fact that they'll have to pay for travel and accommodation, but point out that they're not paying for people's time, which makes this training really, really cheap.
  7. Above all, keep it short. The message below takes 30 seconds or less to scan; add another few seconds for them to check the Cc: list (where possible, approach people in groups), and either they're hooked enough to hit 'reply' or they're not.

It's worked pretty well for us:

  • About 60% of emails are answered.
  • Over half of those answers are, "Sure, let's talk more."
  • More than half of those discussions lead to workshops which means that about 1/5 of emails turn into workshops. This is a lot more impressive than it might sound—most people in sales figure that 2-5% conversion on cold calls is outstanding.

If you'd like to give this a try (i.e., email someone on behalf of Software Carpentry to try to start setting something up for 2013), please let me know—it's a useful skill to pick up.


I hope you don't mind mail out of the blue, but I saw your recent paper on building a computational materials repository, and was wondering if you'd be interested having us run a Software Carpentry workshop for your intended users --- we're scheduling workshops for the coming year right now, and it might be a way to help your community get more out of what you're doing.

Our aim is to teach researchers (usually graduate students) basic computing concepts and skills so that they can get more done in less time, and with less pain. Our usual two-day curriculum includes things like:

  • The Unix Shell
  • Version Control
  • Testing
  • Structured programming with Python
  • Databases
  • Number Crunching

but we're happy to tailor content to meet the needs of specific audiences.

We're funded by the Sloan Foundation and Mozilla, and our instructors are volunteers, so the only cost to host sites is their travel and accommodation. (We can handle registration online, or leave it in hosts' hands.) We aim for 40 people per workshop, and look for 2-3 local helpers to assist during practicals. Two independent assessments in the spring of 2012 confirmed that what we're doing accelerates participants' research, so if there's an upcoming meeting, conference, or get-together where a lot of your intended users will be together, we'd welcome a chance to chat at greater length.

Thanks for your time—we look forward to hearing from you.
Dr. Greg Wilson

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