If you’re out there sharing your dark to find your light, you’re going to have to, in the words of Blanche DeBois, rely on the kindness of strangers.
It’s just a fact: the publishing and podcasting and show booking worlds are insular.
Someone has to help crack that door open to help you share your light.
Many of us reach out and ask for that help. Most of us suck at it.
Even though I feel comfortable in my ways going out into the world and asking for what I want, I can still sometimes suck at asking for what I want in an email.
My friend Ryan Hampton amazes me. He sets his eyes on something, picks up the phone — and gets it.
I don’t do that.
First of all, I hate the phone.
Secondly, when I really want something and am afraid I’m going to bother or annoy the person who can give it to me, I want to apologize for my request.
The ridiculous part about this is I have people — usually people I’ve never met — emailing me and asking me for things all day long.
Oftentimes I’m happy to comply.
Other times, I’m so put off by the attitude conveyed in the way they’re asking me for something that I delete the email before I’ve even really considered what they’re asking.
Most of us react fairly similarly when it comes to basic human psychology.
In other words, I have a perfect case study on what works and what doesn’t sitting right there in my inbox.
I’ll never forget a piece I read by Virginia Heffernan from The New York Times, where she talked about having reviewed Lena Dunham’s first short film in 2007. She explained that she was “flattered” when Dunham “barraged [her] with witty, grateful and self-promotional emails for months after.”
I don’t care what you think about her; in this way, we should all want to be Lena Dunham.
Of course, if we could all make a perfect love child out of wit, gratitude and self-promotion, we’d all have hit HBO shows in our early twenties.
So instead of aiming for that, we can just follow these 4 simple suggestions.
“Honesty saves everyone’s time”
The other day, I got perhaps the best phrased email request I’ve ever received.
Here’s how it started:
“I wanted to see if you would do me a huge favor and consider” and then went on to explain what he wanted.
In other words, it was clear from the first four words that this person wanted something from me.
It also used the word “favor.” At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m going to go ahead and say that “favor” is a great word.
Plus, my mom always told me that when someone asks, “Can you do me a favor?” a generous person automatically says yes so I sort of have a Pavlovian Mom-pleasing impulse to respond affirmatively to that word.
My point is this: if you’re asking for a favor, don’t pretend you’re not.
Let’s contrast that wording with the phrasing of an email I also recently received — this one from an acquaintance:
Now, look; I’m a narcissist so hat’s off to the sender for telling me he just read something about me (he knows his audience, give him a point!) But then the rest of the email focused on why he would make a compelling guest.
And yes, his story is absolutely interesting — I think every addict’s story is interesting if told right — but as far as a pitch, it didn’t really land with me.
If he’d written, “I think my story would resonate with your listeners because” and provided a reason which maybe showed he actually listened to the show, that would have been one thing.
If he’d just made it a request — a favor — I would have done it. But by starting it with something about me but then going into why he would be great for me (and my listeners), he lost me.
Don’t, in other words, pull a bait and switch. Just tell ’em what you want.
“Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less”
I’m going to go back to “Favor” guy. After asking for the favor in the email, he wrote: “I know it’s a lot to ask but I figured, why not.”
For the record, what he was asking for wasn’t a lot but the fact that he phrased it in that way tapped into my willingness to say yes.
Let’s contrast that with another email I received this week. It started with a sentence I’m highly recommending none of you ever write.
“I am probably the most knowledgeable person in world of history of drug addiction,” it read. “Google my name.”
It was an interesting intro, especially considering this is a field I’ve been covering for a decade and I’d never heard his name.
That being said, I did, indeed, consult Google after reading his email and learned that he actually had done really interesting work.
It was so interesting that I forwarded the email to a friend who works at LA Weekly and asked if he wanted to do a story on the guy. He looked him up and agreed with me that the guy was a good story but that, in short, he looked like too big of a pain in the ass to deal with.
Just how much of a pain in the ass? Well, his email went on for several paragraphs before getting to the reason for writing: he wanted me to give him a call.
He, unlike, the guy who was asking for the small thing but calling it a big thing, did not seem to feel this was a lot to ask.
His email actually implied that making this call would be very good for me.
(I already told you I hate the phone.)
If you consider yourself the world’s expert on something — and believe that Google does too — then I guess you would think that allowing a stranger the opportunity to talk to you would be a great opportunity for that stranger.
You can think that all you want.
Just don’t tell the stranger that. The most successful writer I know has a two-line bio; if you actually are extremely successful, in other words, you don’t need to scream it.
Don’t Make Demands
“If you’re too self-important, it’s kind of repellent” — Judith Leiber
This one should be obvious but it’s not a great idea to tell a stranger whom you want something from that they should do anything.
Let’s go back to World’s Expert guy. Before telling me to call him, he had some ideas for what I could do with my time. The first thing I should do, he explained, was read his book. He also suggested I read a certain article (though he did thoughtfully add, “It’s very long” and told me to focus on a certain section as well as the conclusion).
It was in his PS that he got to his final request:
“I also need,” he wrote, “a contact to Huffington Post and or Time and or NY Times.”
To put this in perspective, I have a good friend who works at The NY Times (I was in her wedding). I have another friend who works at HuffPo. And I know a guy who works at Time. I have never once asked one of them for the contact information for another editor at any of their publications. Why? Because it’s a big ask and I haven’t yet wanted to call in that favor.
Can we agree that this guy doesn’t so much need a contact at The Times as he does some new vocab words?
Accept No Graciously
“Everyone fears rejection” — Derek Jeter
I recently had the experience of pitching a blog that accepts guest posts. I explained my stats in my pitch (NY Times bestselling author of six books, have written for The NY Times, Time, Playboy yada yada).
And I got a quick response: “Not for me but thank you!” She provided a suggestion for somewhere else (another free blog) where I could pitch it.
I was at a red light glancing at my phone when I saw this and felt the immediate surge of wait-a-minute-don’t-you-know-who-I-am ism flare up.
I wanted to write back and ask her if she remembered that her blog doesn’t in fact pay writers and by the way did she know that the last blog she posted only got four comments? I at least wanted to respond and ask WHY.
I didn’t do any of those things.
No Just Means You’re One Step Closer to Yes
“Rejection is God’s protection”
–Me, every time I’m rejected. Also lots of other people
The rejection stung but by the time the light turned green I was able to remember that we never in fact get to place where we’re immune to rejection. I sometimes operate under a delusion that if I get X then I will be safe from Y, but the world doesn’t work like that (and it might be boring if it did).
I thought then about how important it is to have humility and how easily I become un-humble.
I thought about the people I know who lack humility, and how much they treat other people like crap and how miserable most of them seem.
“Thank you,” I wrote back.
And I think I actually meant it.
Tomorrow I can send another email to someone else and in it I can be direct and humble and not make any demands. I can then accept no graciously if that is the answer.
And you can, too.
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