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  • Five Tips On How To Ask People For S*** So They Will Say YES
This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
Five Tips On How To Ask People For S*** So They Will Say YES

Even as I was typing the subject line for this post, I was wondering if I was qualified to write it. I thought about calling it "Five Tips On How To Ask People For S***...From Someone With A Moderate Success Rate." But asking people for things is like batting in the major leagues: the degree of difficulty is an eleven, a wildly successful average is three out of ten, and if you get on base, it really doesn't matter how you did it as long as you didn't cheat. (In the case of asking people for stuff, cheating may include anything from illegal use of guilt to making a request under false pretenses.) I am constantly struck by how hard it is to get other people to actually do stuff--rather than to just say they will. As an author pitching her second book to an indifferent universe, however, and as the former board chair of Girls Write Now, and as the mother of two boys who had to be asked eight thousand two hundred and sixty-seven times to put on their coats this morning, I have some experience with the art of the ask, and will now humbly share it here. All I ask in return is that you read to the end, because that's when I'm going to ask you for something (I guess that's ask number two), and you can vote with your mouse on how well I do it. 

1) Embrace your right to ask. This is hard to do, I know. But one of the things I've learned is that people almost never mind being asked for things, as long as you do it thoughtfully (see tips 2-5), because asking for things is a part of life, and all of us have a right to do it. I find that when I truly embrace my right to ask for things, the results are better than when I ask from a place of anxiety, embarrassment, or shame--the cringing ask versus the confident one. Sometimes I have to give myself a pep talk, of course. Usually I pretend that one of my kids is the one who needs to make the ask, and talk to myself like I would talk to them, saying 1) it's okay to ask; 2) it's okay if the person you ask says no. Which leads me to tip #2.

2) Be Prepared--Not Just "I Know I Have to Be Prepared" Prepared, but Truly Prepared--for "No." This is somewhat related to number one. To make a good ask, it helps to normalize, and de-personalize, rejection as much as you can. When I ask someone for something, I usually assume the answer will be no, which makes it all the more wonderful when I get a yes instead. More important, perhaps: I always have a backup plan. If you really feel your life, your book, your organization, or your whatever absolutely depends on getting a yes to this one particular ask, the person in question can usually tell, and, unless she is your mother or your best friend, she will probably run for the hills. (Those who say yes under these circumstances often say yes just to avoid saying no, which results in a yes-with-an-asterisk, which means you'll worry the whole time about whether or not you can truly count on it.) That's why having a backup plan--or, preferably, plans--is important. Don't make this ask the only ask. It's too much pressure on you and on the person you are asking for help.

3) Aim low. This one is simple. I always start with asks I feel pretty sure I'll get yeses to. Take blurbs, for example. A lot of people's instinct is to start by aiming high (Toni Morrison, why not?!), and only after doing that do they go to their backup list, and then to their backup backup list. But even if you should ask Toni Morrison (why not, indeed?), I'd suggest going to your "almost-a-lock" list first, or, if you don't have one, asking someone to whom you can offer something meaningful in return--even if he or she isn't the biggest name in the literary phone book. Getting the yes, not to mention the blurb, feels good, and puts you in a better position to ask others confidently, without feeling the world will end if you get a no.

4) Ask Not What Someone Can Do For You...But What You Can Do For Someone. This tip is not always applicable, because in the case of some asks, there isn't an available quid pro quo. When I ask someone to donate to Girls Write Now, for example, I try to be responsive when that person asks me to donate to a cause they care about, but if I explicitly offered that up every time I asked, I'd have nothing left to give. It also doesn't work when you are asking somebody higher up the "ask ladder" than you, like when I asked a celebrity to lend her name to the Honorary Committee for the upcoming GWN gala. (Lena Dunham wants nothing from me, it turns out.) If, however, you can find a way to offer something to the person you are asking a favor from, it is one of the best ways to get a yes there is. (It feels better, too.) Take the time to find out what that person might need, or simply offer a few concrete things that you have to give, or simply ask, "How can I help you with X?" Just make sure you know what X is. In other words, do your homework. Which leads me to tip #5.

5) Ask The Right Question Of The Right Person. I am always getting galleys from publicists who evidently have no clue what She Writes is, who I am, or even what they want me to do with the books they send. I always feel sorry for their authors--those books could have gone to much better use somewhere else! The person sending me the book hasn't bothered to do his or her homework, not only to find out who I am, but to find out, specifically, what I can do for that book, and as a result they commit one of the worst ask-errors there is: failing to ask the right favor of the right person. When I ask people for things I make my ask specific, and limit it to one thing. Sending someone a request with multiple choices (you could do this, or maybe you want to do this, or maybe this?) is not flexible and accommodating, it's confusing, and it makes the recipient of the ask feel exhausted before they even do anything. The best way to avoid this is by doing your homework. Before I write an email to someone, I always spend time getting up-to-date on what he or she is doing, and personalize my ask accordingly. Not that this is a magic bullet; I often get more no-replies than I do no's. But at least I don't feel like an idiot for sending an email that reads like a freelance journalist pitching Sports Illustrated on an article about scrapbooking. 

Do you have tips or advice to share about making an effective ask? If you do, please share them, and feel free to give me some feedback on my ask, too. :)

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  • I need an ask persona, what a great idea! And Laura, good luck with those important asks. Thanks so so much to all who signed up for the newsletter, I appreciate it. 

  • Thanks for this post. It is SO hard to ask for favors, even of friends. And I agree with other comments; it's partly a female problem. It's nice to see the issues laid out in an orderly way, which can help us become more brave.

  • J. Dylan Yates

    Wonderful! Love it, Barbara!

  • Barbara Stark-Nemon

    I'm Anna Strong, Dylan.  Love that we have this trick in common! 

  • J. Dylan Yates

    My tip for "the ask" is to put another hat on. I literally named the persona I use for speaking engagements, publicity events and telephone interviews. I named her Dianne Gallagher (British dialect and emphasis on the Grrrrr)!  She's the one who helps me craft difficult letters and ask for things I'm not sure I'm worthy of.

    My guess is that most of us are more comfortable in a hermetic state, scribbling away and far from any conflict that isn't on a page or screen.  The vulnerability required to ask and the possibility of a painful rejection may not be worth the risk, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the mostly generous and truly compassionate responses to well-intentioned requests that benefit both the giver and the receiver.

  • Laura, good for you for putting yourself "out there" by applying for grants and residencies.  In my first 3 years of writing my book (and, yes, I'm still writing...{sigh}), I applied for several residencies and was awarded 5!  I believe what made my proposal stand out was the topic of my book -- not my references (who were 2 friends, one not a writer), not my experience (I don't have an MFA, in fact, I'm not a college graduate!), not even my writing (even though I'd like to think so...).

    The first residency I was awarded bc of my background in politics.  There was one member of the committee who argued strongly that I'd be an interesting asset to the community during Pres Obama's first campaign.  The following year, I landed a residency for travel writers (same book project) in a small town that -- again -- thought I'd bring an interesting perspective to their community.  Another was in a community I was writing about and, although I didn't win the main residency, the group created a special one for me!

    Now, I'm not suggesting that that's how all residencies are awarded (I certainly have lost more than I've won).  But, I am suggesting that committees are subjective and you have no control over what happens when a group of people get together behind a closed door.  Often, it has less to do about your writing and more to do with the political dynamics of a group of people you will likely never meet.

    I will say that the focus of my proposals is on what I can bring to them, rather than on what their residency will do for me.  I also recycle my reference letters -- with open-ended permission from the referrals, of course.

    I think my experience is a bit of a lesson in all types of "asks":  Often, the response has nothing to do with us and we really, really can't take it personally!  Even when we get a "yes," it may not necessarily be about us.

    So, Laura, keep putting yourself out there and keep crossing your fingers -- but let the outcome go once you hit the send button.  Good luck!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
  • This is such a thoughtful post & a rich topic. Asking for things is, I think, the most difficult part of this whole writing world. I've been applying to residencies & applying for grants & having to request recommendation letters just fills me with anxiety every time. Most of my close writing friends aren't far enough along professionally (ie don't have books published) to provide a "prominent" reference name. And those that are more mid-career, I don't want to use up, so I try to spread my requests around. I don't have an mfa so I don't have a group of teachers to call on. Even though I know we all have to do it, and asking for references is part of the game, I agonize each time I write my "ask" email to my potential referrals--trying to get the right tone & to make sure they know it's okay to refuse & to not be a pain in the ass. And to not sound timid & self-effacing! I just signed up for your newsletter.

  • Thanks, Kamy!  LOVE your welcome video...Very smart idea.  I might steal it!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
  • Marianne C. Bohr

    Yes, I'd love to receive yr newsletter, Kamy, and will sign up ASAP. You're so right about asking from a place of confidence rather than timidity.  Makes all the difference in how the request is received.

  • Kelly, done. Cate, I joined and sent a message to my SW friends to check it out. Not sure how active I can be bewteen now and my pub date but I LOVE the idea and your leadership on the site. And Phoebe, what a great story of asking and receiving, hooray!

  • Phoebe Fox

    Signed up for your newsletter! Good post--thanks. My giant ask was for my first novel, BEDSIDE MANNERS. The book that inspired a lot of it (and my life, frankly) was HE'S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. So I reached high and contacted coauthor Liz Tuccillo's agent (Liz Tuccillo was also executive story editor for SEX AND THE CITY, so it was a BIG ask.) Her agent was utterly lovely and forwarded my note, and days later I was absolutely stunned to get a direct e-mail from Liz, saying how nice my letter had been, and that she would be happy to read my novel and offer a comment or two. And then she did exactly that (you know how unusual that can be), and gave me the best, most complimentary, flattering blurb I could have asked for. Not only was it a spectacular gift for me, promotion-wise, but coming from someone I admired so much it meant a ton. I couldn't believe my luck, and her generosity in helping a total stranger.

  • Yes, Kamy, I'd love to receive your author newsletter!  You offer valuable and informative advice and I'd love to be a bigger part of that.  Will you sign up for mine?  My book isn't done yet (looking for an agent), but when it is, I'll offer a pre-publication discount -- as well as intermittent ramblings, both literary and geographic.  (For example, I'll be working in Malaysia this summer, researching sex trafficking and env'l problems -- which will be written up for my special list recipients.)  Link below...

    Another thought to include on your list:  Not asking people for help strips them of their power to decide if and how they want to help.  Who am I to make that decision for them?  By asking for help, I'm offering an opportunity they can jump on or decline.

    Great post!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!

  • Pat Sabiston

    Super!  I believe you get new followers that way as well!  Love your writing!

  • Aw Maria. I know. That is what I really need. But it's hard to ask. :)

    And you got it, Pat!

  • Lene Fogelberg Writing

    Thanks for great advise and inspiration! I also signed up on your letter right away. Can't wait to read your book!

  • Pat Sabiston

    #1 For me is "just be kind" in tone and words. 

    #2 And, I'd love to sign up for your newsletter, if you'll like Author Pat Sabiston, Panama City, FL on FaceBook.  Sound like a deal?  I just fulfilled my part of the bargain.  You?

  • Maria Murnane

    Kamy, I loved your post but think you neglected to include the REAL ask that you need right now, so I will do it for you here:

    IF YOU ARE A SHEWRITES MEMBER, BUY A COPY OF KAMY'S BOOK. She deserves all of our support, and we all know it.

    Go Kamy! :)

  • Lea Page

    Thanks, Bar.  An interview will be new ground, but I am excited as well as nervous.  I don't have a newsletter and am just reviving my old blog, but I invite you all to check out my new website for my forthcoming book: www.LeaPageAuthor.com.  Phew.  What a day!

  • Carson those are all great questions. I think women's lives have depended on relationships and, before we could control our reproductive lives, on other's good will when we were vulnerable. So it's deep. We are traditionally the givers and that is what society tends to value most in women. Did you see this from Sheryl Sandberg and researcher Adam Grant in the Times earlier in the year? http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/opinion/sunday/speaking-while-female.html

    Katrin I like those tips, and Patricia, I signed up!

  • Katrin Horowitz

    Great post, Kamy!  One thing that helps me:  I try to keep in mind that I can expect 9 no's (or no response at all) for every 10 asks -- and when those no's start coming in I look on them instead as taking me closer to the next yes, and I imagine thanking the person for that one-tenth of a yes.  And all those asks are good practice as well -- it gets easier and better as we keep doing it.

    Looking forward to your newsletter too.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Didn't know you had a newsletter. I signed up. Aren't you glad you asked! I've got a blog and newsletter too. Would love it if you would check them out and consider signing up for the newsletter. It's only once a month so you won't be inundated with emails and I'm going to be doing a free offer for my latest book this month. http://patriciamrobertson.com

  • Rita Gardner

    Just signed up for your newsletter...thanks!

  • Carson Gleberman

    Why is asking so hard for women? Even more than our our fear of rejection, I think, it is because we don't like saying no ourselves. We fear disappointing or angering others when we say no, and then we feel guilt about causing those negative feelings and perhaps harming a relationship. As much as we fear appearing pushy for asking, we fear appearing selfish for saying no, and the inevitable second-guessing that will follow. We don't want to cause anyone else to have that fear/guilt/anxiety/second guessing about saying no to us, so really, it's just easier not to ask in the first place. 

    Perhaps if we practice saying no when we really want to say no, it will boost our confidence in asking. How? If we feel better about saying no, it will seem less of a burden that we project onto our askees. We might feel better about hearing no ("it's not personal, she's just being straight up with me and recognizing her own needs") so we can ask with more confidence as Kamy proposes. 

    I don't know about you but I need to practice both saying no and asking more.

    And count me in for your newsletter!

  • I have liked yours Rita but others should too. Lea, wow, congrats! I love that idea -- be ready for YES. (And Rita if you click the link to my newsletter sign up in the post that's the easiest way. Here it is again just in case: http://www.kamywicoff.com/newsletter-signup/.)

  • Bar Scott

    Bravo, Lea! I've done a lot of interviews and all I can say is prepare, forget what you prepared, then breathe and trust yourself.