5 Worst Ways To Ask A Professional For Help

I like helping people out. I really do. I often eek out time between projects here and there to check a friend’s game mechanics or read over someone’s manuscript. For my friends, I’m willing to do a lot.

The downside is that I don’t have a lot of time left over to help relative strangers. I try to post advice and suggestions to this blog and on my social media, with the idea that I can help a lot of people more generally. However, I still get requests for free business advice, uncontracted design suggestions, informal manuscript comments, and unpaid consultations. And for a while, I tried being a nice guy and help out, but this year I committed to cut down and say “no” more often, because it was becoming a huge drain on my time, energy, and ability to stay civil.

I firmly believe that everyone involved isn’t trying to be irritating. They’re just confused, excited, and a little unsure of themselves. I get that. But I’ve talked with friends of mine who are also creative professionals, and they struggle with this as well. Many of them have stopped fielding such requests altogether (and I’ve come damned close a few times). And usually it’s because there are some really big problems in how folks ask for favors. Here are five ways to quickly frustrate the person you’re asking for help.

1. Be Persistent; You’re Clearly Special

This happens a lot. In fact, it happened to me very recently. Rather than try to obfuscate my situation, I’ll post one that’s just as illustrative.

The big sin here (among the many that are on that page) is asking for special treatment. “Just read my manuscript” or “just give me five minutes of your time” is asking for a lot — I’ll get to why in a second — but to demand it on the basis that your project is special comes across as arrogant. Sure, you feel like your project is the best in the world, but so does everyone else. Being persistent reads like “I deserve more than anyone else who asks you for help.” Even worse, it can come across as “my work is better than yours.”

2. Your Time Is Identical To Their Time

My five minutes is not the same as your five minutes. It’s not because I’m better than you or more important than you. It’s just that I schedule my day with one person in mind: me.

Here’s the problem: any disruption breaks workflows. Anything I carve out of my day for someone else is something I’m giving up to you. That’s time I can’t use towards my day job, paying freelance work, personal projects I may sell, updating my online presence (to get more work), working on my marketing plan (to get more sales), playing games for research (to make me better at my job), or taking time for myself to avoid overwork.  Giving you my time is a gift. If you’re my family or my friend, I’ll give the gift gladly. If you’re a stranger, you need to show that you respect and appreciate the gift.

So when you say things like “It’s just five minutes” or “It’s just lunch,” you’re disrespecting my gift. You’re treating my time like it’s worthless. You probably don’t realize that’s what you’re saying, but that’s what I’m hearing.

3. Good Advice Is Cheap

I say “gift” because my time is not free. After all, there’s a reason for the phrase “time is money.” This became clear to me when I started settling on speaker fees. The metric I’ve always been taught is that for a professional-level presentation (panels are different), you spend ten times the length of the speech in preparation. Then there’s travel to and from the engagement, and the speech itself. I compared that to my normal word rate multiplied by my average word count in an hour, and the result was hundreds of dollars. The number staggered me; I had not idea my time was worth that much.

It’s not all dollars and cents — I have and will continue to take speaking engagements that give other, non-monetary benefits, for example — but it’s not free. If I’m giving you some of that time and I’m not charging you, I need to get something out of the arrangement. Refusing to offer anything makes it hard for me to balance the cost/benefit ratio.

4. Be As Verbose And Vague As Possible

Just as bad is when I get a long, rambling email telling me all about who the person is, what they’re doing, and why they want to ask me advice. My concentration is already broken, and now I have to spend time just to find out what it is you actually want. Worse, not only are you making things harder for me, but odds are you won’t get what you want out of it either.

I often ask people to send me one specific question to answer. Weirdly, I haven’t ever been taken up on it — the conversation either immediately stops or I’m treated as if I’m the asshole. Which doesn’t make me want to help again.

5. Demand Validation

So let’s say that you push and you push, and you get some of my time. (Maybe I’m drunk at the time.) And I do the thing you’re asking me to do, and I give you advice.

There is one answer you should give: “Thank you for your time.”

I almost never get that answer. And I’m not alone. Instead, there’s a high chance to get lots of push-back and requests for validation. Clearly I didn’t read it correctly. Obviously I missed the sheer brilliance of the project. A lot of professionals don’t even give advice, because non-professionals haven’t learned how to take advice yet.

Again, it’s not your fault. Taking advice requires work and effort to learn, and it’s possible you haven’t learned it yet. But if you haven’t, it has the potential to make the conversation emotional and not constructive. If I’m giving you my time, I’m not doing it to validate you.


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