I usually love giving people help – heck, it’s really how this site, When I Have Time, got started. I was helping friends with tech questions over email and Skype and I thought that if the same information helped just one other person, I was doubling my reach. The “Ask the Geek” questions are some of my favorite things to answer and are actual questions sent to me mainly by people I know.
On my food & travel site, Ms. Adventures in Italy, I also answered questions about moving to & living in Italy. I’ve since stopped; I’m not an immigration lawyer and most of the questions I was able to answer, I already have – which is what leads me to writing this post.
I get a lot of vague, long-winded, ridiculous, and desperate requests for help (across a variety of subjects) which lead me to believe the person has no idea who I really am and is probably spamming several people at once looking for those “magic beans” in the form of any answer which will magically save them.
Here’s an example of a request I find vague, inappropriate, and looking for magic beans:
I have found your website and blogs, very interesting. I am trying to promote our business more in the States / Canada. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for me? Hope to hear from you!
Sure! Let me set aside an hour or two of my time to craft a well-thought-out answer for you. Or not. So this post isn’t for those people. I can’t help you find the magic beans.
But what about you? You’re a normal, hard-working, thoughtful person and you have a valid question which you’d like to ask someone to answer for you.
Here’s how to ask for help, and get an answer.
1. Do your homework
Start by doing your homework. And I don’t mean the homework on your actual question – by the time you approach someone for help you should have put your question through the wringer and know it backwards and forwards. You should have definitely tried Google.com first.
What I really mean is to do your homework on the information the person you’re asking for help has already made available to you.
Here’s a crib sheet for you to help you do that homework on a helpful site:
- Categories and tags – If they use categories and tags, they’ve already grouped relevant information for you, the reader. Click through to the relevant pages and back-read all of their related articles.
- Recommended sites and books – they may recommend another site and/or book which can answer your question better than they can – check them out!
- Ebooks, downloads, and newsletters – the author may also have their own ebooks, articles for download, and newsletters you can sign up for to get more information. Make sure you look for these as they have pre-packaged some information just for you!
- Look for Popular Posts – Popular posts will probably tell you what other people have appreciated about the site’s content. Maybe some of that information will be helpful in an indirect way.
- Scour their Archives – I open the Archives page of any site and do a search on the page for keywords that might answer my question – you do the same! If they have a site search, that’s even better.
- Read their contact page – if they have a contact page, they probably have taken the time to let you know how to contact them properly, what things they’re interested in hearing about, and what they aren’t. Note this well. This isn’t mean, it’s a way for them to save time, and for you as well – don’t waste your time asking people for help who clearly can’t or won’t give it! If they don’t have a Contact page, check out their About page, too.
2. Limit your questions
While I love hearing the stories behind a question that comes to me, if I see an email which goes “past the fold” (beyond the viewable part of my screen) and is peppered liberally with question marks, I can assume that the person hasn’t done some homework in #1, they are asking me to take on the majority of the homework part, or they don’t really know what their question is.
Limit your questions. One is best. Two or three is pushing it depending on the context, and any more than that is probably asking too much. Limit your questions, so you can be respectful of the other person’s time. If they want to continue helping, they’ll ask their own questions, or ask you to give them more information.
3. Be specific and realistic
Since you did your homework in #1, you know what information this person has already shared publicly with you via their site. You’ve narrowed down your question and your introduction/background in #2 and now you need to do a reality check – is my question specific enough this person can answer it, and am I being realistic by asking them to answer it?
- Is your question something this person can answer? (i.e., If you have a legal question, are they a lawyer?)
- Are you asking for a specific piece of information / advice? (is it a yes/no question? Have you narrowed down the question enough so they can give you a single answer or starting point?)
- Can the person answer you in just a few minutes? (don’t ask someone to write you an answer that requires a book, or even a blog post. Keep it short and sweet.)
4. Tell me why ME
This is #4, but it might as well be #1 in order of importance. Why are you writing ME? Why do you think I’m the best person to answer your question?
If someone is going to help you, they’d like to think they’re not one of the many people you’re spamming in the hopes of getting a response. Why not let them know? Was it something you read on their site, in their biography, or was it even somewhere where they wrote they’re open to these sorts of requests?
And secondly, in choosing this person, how sure are you they are the correct person to answer this question for you, out of all the resources available to you?
Hopefully in the process of answering this for yourself, you’ll realize that the person really is the right person to ask, and make sure you let them know you’ve done your homework. But if not, think about not sending that email.
5. Limit your follow-up
If the person never answers you, they might not be interested in answering you. It’s probably not personal (they most likely don’t know you!) They also may be super busy, they may not have seen your email, or your email may have gone into spam (it does happen).
Depending on the urgency and content of your email, I would say you should wait at least a week before writing them again. And write them only once more, with the contents of the first mail and a short 1-sentence note introducing the mail which might have gotten lost. No more than that. Don’t rewrite your entire story in hopes that it will be more appealing (wasting the person’s time as they try to remember where they just read a similar story like this), don’t email them multiple times, don’t bug them via other social networks if you send that second message.
If the person still doesn’t answer, move on.
6. Offer to pay for the help
This last step isn’t a last resort. Rather, it’s a reminder that other people’s time is valuable, too. Make sure you take advantage of any free resources available, and also utilize those paid resources when you really need some good answers.
Hopefully in step 1 you’ve discovered if the person offers consultation on a paid basis, and what that entails. If they do offer paid consultations, seriously consider working with them. If they are the best person to answer your question, why not pay them for their time? If the answer is valuable to you, then the time spent putting together the information is valuable, too.
Not everyone can answer questions for free, or their free answers may seem short because they are purposely limiting their time allowed to respond for free advice. Again, don’t take it personally, and respect their time, too.
What about you? Can you share some tips about what makes you actually want to answer a request for help?
Here are three other articles on email etiquette and asking for help which I found inspiring:
- How to Ask Better Questions – Erika Napoletano
- Help Create an Email Charter – TED’s Chris Anderson
- Be the E-mailer you Wish to See in the World – Alexandra Samuel
- How to Ask for Business Help – Design*sponge
- How to Approach a Blogger (great for everyone) – Pret a Voyager
Categories: Productivity & Self