Help Me Help You -Simple Tips on Making Targeted Asks

Given the state of affairs in the world these days, I try to help as many people as I can. I have a lot of friends who are looking for jobs, looking to network for job security, or otherwise need help in connecting with a person or organization. Invariably most of this communication / connection takes place over email.

I’m of the mind that if you want help, it really helps to make it as easy as possible for the person you’re asking to actually do something for you. I’ve observed which emails I both receive and send in this vein that seem to have the highest hit rate. I think there are some basic principles worth considering before you push send (full disclosure – I don’t even come close to getting this right 100% of the time):

Make your ask as clear and actionable as possible
The toughest asks to field are the ones that require the recipient to further refine or qualify your ask. Below are three sample asks that I’ve seen in the wild and some commentary about the problems / issues with each of them:

Good: “I want to talk to someone at Google about a job” – This is not the most actionable ask, but it is far from the worst. The recipient has some frame of reference for what the person asking for help actually wants. It’s a pretty broad ask and requires the recipient to do some post-processing to figure out who might be a good fit.

Better: “I’m interested in a job at Google on the business side” – This is a better ask than the one above. Now the recipient at least has a rough idea of the scope of the ask. It still requires some post-processing, but not as much as the example above. My guess is that both this ask and the one above are probably too general to elicit much in the way of successful help.

Even Better: “I’m interested in learning more about jobs in Corp Dev and Business Development at Google, particularly in mobile” – Now we’re getting into the realm of actionable asks. The recipient has a pretty tight filter as to what the person asking actually wants. There are numerous advantages to this. First, the recipient does not have to do much post-processing – he or she either knows someone who fits the bill or he or she does not. It’s a rifle shot ask, not a shotgun ask. A secondary advantage to this approach is that it makes the person making the ask look like they’ve done their homework and refined their own target appropriately. Last, an ask that specific is likely to stick in the recipient’s head. Weeks later, it’s much easier to recall a specific ask than a general one.

The meta point is that specific asks generally get answers more quickly, even if the recipient doesn’t have any help to offer at that time.

Provide a blurb / short paragraph that can be easily sent along
If you’re asking for help, time matters. If the person you’re asking for help can help you, you want to shorten the time between contact and action. One simple way to do this is to provide enough information in the email to allow the person who received the ask to forward that note on, in its entirety, to someone else down the line.

-If you’re looking for work, include a summary of your background, a link to your resume, or some other professional online identity (such as LinkedIn). This removes cycles that are wasted going back and forth. It also allows the eventual recipient to get a quick sense as to who you are and whether you’re a fit. And, if you’re applying to a publicly-listed job, it also helps to include a pointer to that as well.

-If you’re looking for help hiring, include a link to the job posting, a summary of the job qualifications, or the actual job spec. It really helps with targeting. The more detail, the better.

-If you’re really just looking to network or make a connection, be upfront about that. But if that’s the case, make sure you’re pretty clear on what it is that you want to get out of the conversation and what you might have to offer in return in the way of information / knowledge sharing.

The basic point here is that it’s much easier to send along something that’s already packaged than it is to create context out of whole cloth. Make life easy on the person whose help you’re requested – arm him or her with the tools to make good introductions / connections easily.

If you have other tips / ideas about how you like people to package information when they want your help, feel free to include them in the comments or shoot me a note directly.