How many times have you talked to a new acquaintance and heard him or her say "Just let me know if there is anything I can do for you!"
What was your response?
For most people, it is a polite smile and "thanks."
Boy, are you missing an opportunity!
The more time I spend in business, the more I realize that people generally are brimming with desire to help others.
My recent experiences on Twitter reinforce this fact:
- When my computer blew up, I lamented about it on Twitter and asked for suggestions for backup services. I not only got great advice from about 20 people, I also had people volunteer to spend time on the phone walking me through the process of setting it up.
- I was pondering a switch from Typepad to Wordpress so that I could integrate my website and blog. I asked my followers their opinion, and once again was blown away with the response. Rick Gregory went above and beyond the call of duty and mocked up a sample Wordpress site for me using content from my website and blog.
- The same thing happened when I was stuck formatting a post on Martha Beck’s blog, which is in Wordpress. Nathan Bowers offered to help, I sent him the errant HTML, he fixed it, and emailed it back to me.
- I read a tweet from Hugh McLeod about his Moleskine notebook and wanted to share a link with him about a beautiful custom engraving company. Since the bookmark was lost in the crash, I couldn’t remember the name of the company. So I tweeted about it, and 2 minutes later had 10 people send me the link. (Engrave Your Book)
Here is the catch: in order for them to help you, you have to be really specific with your requests. And in order to be specific with your requests, you have to reflect on what you really want. This can be things like:
- I really want to connect with __________ (Paul Graham,Malcolm Gladwell, Oprah )
- I really want to learn about __________ (writing code, entrepreneurship, photography)
- I want help with ________ (writing a business plan, closing more sales, choosing between good logo designs)
Once you define what you want, the next time someone asks you what they can do for you, you have an answer.
I have a specific example: I am obsessed with getting my friend Ramit Sethi on Oprah when his new book, I Will Teach You to Be Rich, comes out. Ramit writes personal finance advice for college students and recent
college graduates. But unlike many of the older, "professional" finance
experts, he truly understands his audience and can offer unique insight
about the crisis facing our society since young people have no
idea how to manage their money. He can speak to the millions
of mothers watching the show and say "do you realize that you are
setting up your children for misery, stress and pressure because of the
way you teach them about money?"
I can’t explain the obsession — I am not a publicist, and Ramit has never asked me for help. I just think he would be a perfect guest and it would make a really great show.
I actually know a few people who have been on Oprah, so the Six Degrees of Separation is working in my favor. But there is a right and a wrong way to ask for their advice:
- DON’T ask: "Would you introduce my friend Ramit to Oprah’s producers?"
- DO ask: "I would love to get my friend Ramit on Oprah because his book would make a great topic for a show. What is your best advice for connecting with the show’s producers?"
The first approach puts them on the spot. Even though we are friendly, they may not be willing to risk their personal relationship to introduce me. The second approach is much less pressure on them, and I can learn valuable information that will serve me in other situations, like convincing Today Show producers to have Matt Lauer interview me when my book comes out.
The same goes for other requests. Ask about the process, not the people.
- DON’T ask: "Would you review my business plan?"
- DO ask: "I would love to have some expert review on my business plan. How do you suggest I go about getting it?"
- DON’T ask: "Would you blog about my company?"
- DO ask: "I would love to make bloggers in my target market aware of my company. Do you have any suggestions for connecting with them?"
- DON’T ask "Would you take me with you on your photo shoot?"
DO ask" "I want to get much more experience observing professionals on photo shoots. What is the best way to get this experience?"
In each of these cases, the person you are asking may just volunteer himself. "I’d be happy to introduce you to Oprah’s producer!" or "I would love to blog about your company" or "Would you like to come with me on a photo shoot?"
The difference is he volunteers his time or expertise willingly, without any pressure.
I don’t mean to give the impression that you can never ask anyone for specific help. If you have long-standing mutually beneficial relationships with influential people, you can be more direct. But in newer relationships or networking situations, this approach works beautifully.
Bottom line: The more often you ask for what you want, the more likely you are to get it. To ask for help, you have to define what you want. To get the best results, ask about the process, not the people.
What has been your experience asking for help? Do you hold back, and if so, why?
This was helpful, Pam! I find myself struggling frequently with how to ask for help from someone I don’t know and usually just go for the straight out – can you help me with this approach, but often feel uncomfortable doing that and you’ve given me a new approach to try.
If all goes well, I’ll be on the Today Show in a couple of weeks and if you ask me how I did it when your book comes out, I’ll introduce you to my contact there. 🙂
On Twitter, people are so anxious to help, it almost seems like a contest of sorts. Who can provide the answer the fastest? I’m guilty of it, but I’m a librarian, so info seeking is an obsession of sorts.
I agree that there is so much coded into the way we ask for things that careful wording can greatly affect the outcome. Really, really good advice.
As some people noted, many of us have problem with asking for help. I would assume that this is especially evident with people who make it on their own and like it that way.
So, I’ll give you another angle. Do you like helping people? I do. It’s satisfying. You get some instant gratification and you’re uplifted with a boost of positive energy.
When you’re not asking for help, especially when people offer, you’re denying that privilege from them.
Give people the gift of giving.
Good point Zviki!
I will venture to say that those who are afraid of asking for help will take a LOT longer to realize their goals as compared to those that aren’t.
Thanks for offering your perspective!
Sometimes people will talk with me and ask , how can they help me. I am very specific and tell them exactly what I am looking for or want. They nod and then start telling me about the stuff, THEY want to give me.
I have to sit there politely and nod, but the entire time I am thinking, I dont want or need that, I told you exactly what I want or need.
So now I am starting to hate that question.
Hmmm, that is a dilemma … maybe it is a question of not connecting yet with quite the right people (or is that Wright people? sorry — couldn’t resist the pun!). I say keep on asking for what you want, and sooner or later it will manifest. Either that, or if it wasn’t quite the right thing for you or your business, the right thing will reveal itself to you.
Thanks for weighing in!
I would love to be able to meet and possibly have a meal with Samantha Brown from the Travel Channel. In what way would any of you suggest I go about doing so? And how would I best explain to my wife that she is not invited?
Hey – it’s worth a shot and it’s good practice of the format, right?
And for the record, I love my wife very much.
Good thing you clarified Andy, I was about to call your wife this morning. HA! I know you adore her.
You jest, but by putting out this desire to the virtual universe, who knows what might happen? Samantha Brown might just read this blog and knock on your door tomorrow. 🙂
Keep on keeping on with your dreams.
Great points Pam. In my case I’ve always liked to work alone and I’m used to finding my own answers and doing things my way. I’m the type who would drive for half an hour looking for a place rather than stopping for a minute to ask for directions.
Unfortunately, this is not the best way to learn new things and get what you want efficiently, so I’m working on changing my approach.
The first step I’m taking is to try to talk less and listen more. Also, when I need help I usually go to others and tell them: Hey, I’m stuck here, how would YOU go about this?
People love to talk about themselves and when you frame the question around what THEY would do, that usually that gets them going in the direction you want them to.
I liked your post and the tangible examples that you gave about how to ask for help. The trouble is that sometimes, when I am asked that way, I take the question at face value and don’t always realize that the person is trying to ask me something directly. For example, if someone says to me “Can you recommend a person to write a post on this topic at X blog?” and what they are really getting at is that they want me to write it, I don’t always catch on (call me obtuse!)
BTW, learned about this post on Twitter.
Good point Carolyn! I definitely don’t mean you should never be direct, which can confuse someone like you who may be very willing to help, if you can just decipher the request. What I am mainly describing are early relationships where there is not a lot of understanding and trust built between you and the person you want information or support from. In these cases, I find it is best to ask about the process and not put them on the spot.
Thanks for stopping by via Twitter!
EXCELLENT post, Pam. Those drawn to the entrepreneurial life are, I think, paradoxically both most in need of asking for help, and least likely to even consider such a thing. That “can-do” and “I can do it MYSELF, thank you very much” attitude is both a blessing and a curse!
Excellent advice on framing the question in a way that’s less “give me what I want” and more “dear hive mind friends, do you have any recommendations?”. Everyone loves being asked for their opinion.
You also have much better results asking for help when you’re contributing in some way. This could mean running a helpful blog, contributing to open source projects, or even just being a fun and helpful Twitterer yourself.
Well said from a very helpful blog writer, open sourcer, helpful Twitterer and decoder of gnarly HTML-er-er.
You set the standard Nathan!
Pamela, thanks for this really timely post. I am like one of the world’s WORST at asking for help. This post makes it seem almost silly not to ask for it, since the methods you describe are so inoffensive! I’m going to try to incorporate one minor ask in every post I write. Maybe then, I will have less resistance to asking for help when I have a really large problem!
Yeah Robyn! More asking power to you! I think you will find that the more you ask, the easier it becomes. As well, the more you ask, the more you will be asked, which is fun too! Reciprocity makes the world go round.
How can I help you? 😉
Thanks, Pam! What a nice thing to say.
Your point is right on. Too often, we don’t ask for help. But people *want* to help! Especially if you ask in a subtle way that encourages people to share their expertise.
When I’m trying to learn more about a certain area (let’s say on a job search), one trick I use is asking people who I should be reading and talking to. Inevitably, they’ll say, “I know him…let me know if you want an introduction.” And then when I follow up, I always keep the original person in the loop.
In any case, I couldn’t have asked for a better person to obsess about getting me on Oprah!
Words cannot express my gratitude for you pushing your book writin’ ever-so-briefly to the back burner to get this puppy written.
Not only is it a great tool for the asking, it’s also an invaluable insight into why my buttons get pushed. I’m not nuts; I just want the idea and impetus to be mine.
Of course, none of this applies to narcissists and sociopaths, but for garden-variety askers, it’s invaluable. Clipped/Stumbled/del.icio.us-ed, etc.