qualified requests: how to ask for stuff
Just ask. Ask and It Is Given. Ask and you shall receive. Good things come to those who…ask.
Agreed. Emphatically. Ask and keep asking. Ask the universe, your boss, your crush, bank manager, bus driver, car salesman…ask for what you want and keep on asking. But if you want to increase your odds of receptivity, you’ve got to go about it with some style, darling. The formula for stylin’ askin’ gets down to this: sincerity + brevity = intelligence.
My Malcolm Gladwell Ask
For my first book I wanted the best literary agent in the business. So I started at the top, naturally. I honed in on the books and authors I admired most and read their acknowledgments sections, looking for the writers who genuinely and emphatically thanked their agents. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell swooned over his agent – claimed she should run for the US Presidency. “Well, she’ll do!” I thought. Where to start asking? With Malcolm. How to get his email? Off his website. [Yep - it can be that easy, and it often is.]
The Ask went a little somethin’ like this:
You’re Canadian. My business partner and I are Canadian. You’ve been called “obsessively competitive.” My partner was a former nationally-ranked athlete and she still hates to lose. You’re half black. And, well, I’m a white girl with dreadlocks. I’m hoping you’ll be charmed enough to help open a door for us…
[When you're being authentic, you have nothing to lose. Giving it "your all" is often about leaving pretenses behind. Win or lose, you'll feel all dignified and jazzed because you fully showed up.]
We want to get to [Madame Agent.] You think she could run the world, and I think she could make my dreams come true. Here’s our concept:
[What followed was ONLY three sentences - two sentences describing the book idea, and one sentence describing the market.]
I think [Madame Agent] is my Neo. The One. And if you could tell me what vintage of wine she drinks, her favourite bon bons, or how to get her to pay attention to my book proposal, well, I’d be immensely grateful. If there is a direct entre to [Madame Agent] or if you have a suggestion on how to appeal to her, please let me know. We need more Canadians on the bestseller list.
[inserted website and contact deets]
The result: Malcolm, good Canadian that he is, responded in a day or two to the effect of “Well, how can I say no?”
[The universe can't resist authenticity, it's a law. Thankfully, Mr. Gladwell couldn't resist it either.]
He forwarded the email to Madame Agent. She reached out to me, and not long after, we landed a phat book deal.
the 5 essentials of making qualified requests
Identify affinity: You better know as much as you can about who you’re talking to. Be clear about why you’re interested in them in particular, and mention that at the get-go. I once called a local creative exec – found his wife’s number in the ol’ phone book and gave it a shot. He answered the phone. “I just read an interview where you talked about creating a “culture of yes” to support one’s creative process and it got me thinking…” We talked for 15 minutes, I asked when we could meet for tea to tell him more about what I was up to. A week later, he invested in my company.
Brevity is a form of respect, especially when you’re asking a busy person for help. If you send more than three paragraphs (one is IDEAL,) and attachments, and you delve into your history or ten years into the future, I guarantee you’ll get flagged as annoying, delusional and/or not too bright. And really, if you can’t boil down what you’re up to in one concise paragraph, you don’t have a good grip on it.
Specificity is a call to action. What EXACTLY are you looking for? Your request could be a simple as “I’d love to get your perspective, just to have the opportunity to hear what you think of my strategy would be a great value. A half-hour of your time over coffee or in your office – you name it and I’ll be there.” “I want to know everything about social media that you can tell me in fifteen minutes of your spare time…I’m looking to raise capital and would like to pitch you.” (Though remember what the ol’ rich guys love to say, “If you ask for money, you’ll probably just get advice. If you ask for advice, you’re more likely to get money.” I can back that up.)Never, evah ask for “free” advice when you haven’t invested in someone’s material (either with your time actually studying their free stuff, or actually buying their material.) If you’re asking for help in the form of a written response, you need to be even more succinct and gracious. If I get general requests like, “Do you have any advice for how to start up my business?” Well… you’re kidding me, right? Guess you missed the 900+ free articles on this site, and the fact that I make my living giving strategic advice. But sure, here’s some advice: get a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, ‘cuz you’re going to need it.Try this: “Could you look at my website and just tell me the first three words that come to mind in terms of my brand?” Bam bam, smarty pants.
NO BULLSHIT HYPE. Embellishing things is a no-no way to start any relationship. Smart folk usually have excellent memories and if they sniff out a white lie or exaggeration about how successful you say you are in the beginning, it could all go south really quickly. Stick to the facts. Facts are a solid foundation. However…
HEART HYPE is essential. Don’t spend a lot of airtime talking about how you think your idea is going to make a zill or get you on Oprah, Ellen, Larry King, Piers Morgan, but do hit a big love note: you’re passionate, you feel called, you’re giving it all you got, you’re in it to win it. Passion persuades.
You may be surprised at how many successful people sincerely want to help you – when you can prove your smarts and passion by asking smartly and passionately.
Back when I was doing one-on-one consulting, I doubled my rate (the demand exceeded the supply and it’s clear that clients could earn back the investment with a few strategic gems…) I got a few people who were like, “Dang woman! Why didn’t you tell me you were going to raise your price?” I didn't really have a warm-fuzzy response for that.
And a few others took a more proactive and optimistic approach. They open heartedly asked if I could honour the old fee, briefly explained what they were doing in the world, and how a session could help them knock it outta the park. My answer: “Well, how could I say no?”