How to score a meeting with just about anyone

We’re all inundated with meeting requests these days. It’s easy to say no to the egregious ones, like the stranger who recently emailed me to suggest that I meet with him on a specific date so I could provide him with free career coaching. But – though I know better than to ask for pro bono resume critiques – I’ve certainly been on the other side of the equation at various times, having my meeting requests turned down or ignored altogether.

In fact, most of us probably have; in an increasingly time-pressed world, almost no one has the leisure to connect “just because.”

Here are the strategies I’ve learned over time to ensure the people I want to meet are more likely to say yes:

Recognize where you’re starting. A good friend can easily drop you a line letting you know they’ll be in your city and suggesting a meet-up. “You can write with a presumptive tone at certain levels of intimacy,” Keith Ferrazzi, the author of the networking classic “Never Eat Alone,” told me during a recent interview. “But you have to lead with certain degrees of currency when you don’t have that level of intimacy.” In other words, strangers should never presume that the other person wants to connect with them – that fact needs to be established first.

Start with a modest ask. An hour or a half-hour doesn’t seem like a lot of time. But if you’re one of 20 or 50 requests that week – which isn’t an uncommon number for busy professionals to receive – it can quickly become overwhelming.

So don’t ask to meet for lunch; aim smaller, so it’s easy to say yes.

Always find a warm lead. No matter how successful you are professionally, there are always going to be some people you’d like to meet that haven’t yet heard of you. The challenge is to break through and ensure they view you as a colleague – someone “like them” – rather than a stranger impinging on their time. Finding mutual contacts is one of the best ways to do it. Even Ferrazzi, known for his networking prowess, still has “aspirational contacts” he’d like to meet.

In those cases, he says, “I leverage others to help with outreach.”

Facebook, with its “mutual friends” function, makes this simple; LinkedIn – which charts connections out to the second and third degree – makes it even easier. Having shared contacts introduce you puts you on peer footing and gets your relationship off to the right start.

Just as sitting is apparently the new smoking, time is the new money. No one can afford to give it away carelessly these days. If you’re asking someone you don’t know for a half-hour, or even 10 minutes, you have to think of your request like you’re making a pitch. Why should they speak to you? How can you establish your credibility upfront? How will it benefit them? How can you pack the greatest return on investment into the shortest time?

If you can answer those questions well, you should be able to get a meeting with just about anyone.

(Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant and author of “Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future.”)

© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate