When I talk to people about their networks, asking for help is the most common challenge listed. There are a couple of reasons for this, and one is that people are unclear on good ways to ask for help. Here is an allegory I share to help people hone their asking skills:
Some time ago, a politician-in-exile ran from the despotic military of the illegal regime that replaced her democratically elected government. Just before she was captured, she managed to get a request for aid out to a sympathetic retired general, setting into motion a series of events the world has remembered since.
Her message: "Help me Obi-wan, you're my only hope."
While technically not history, Princess Leia's hologram is a great example of a 'good ask'. The Princess was sending a request out into her network. She had never met Obi-wan Kenobi, but new of him from her father. Ultimately, her request resulted in the overthrow of the evil Empire and re-institution of the galactic government, so it can be called a success. (Episodes VII-IX pending) But what was it about this message that made it so effective?
Princess Leia used some key components in her ask that encouraged response. Breaking down her request, we see this structure:
Framing the relationship
Making it personal
Framing the relationship
Princess Leia frames her connection to Obiwan. "You served my father in the Clone Wars". This established the links - Obiwan to Bail Organna to Leia. It also reminds Obiwan of the nature of the relationship - "You served my father." When making a request of someone not directly linked this two-part process is invaluable. When we describe the path from them to us, we evoke the relationships in between and begin to recreate the connection that was in those relationships. And when we remind people of the nature of the relationship, we help set the stage for the kind of connection we are hoping to recreate.
Framing the relationship also helps with direct connections. Here, reminding the nature of the relationship doesn’t require a reminder of the path as it is a direct connection, but the quality or history of the relationship may be useful context. For example, let them know that you recall their expertise on the subject you need help on in order to set the frame.
After framing the connection, the process of asking requires specific information. The easiest way to think of this is Why, What, How.
Let's look at Princess Leia again. Her message contains the three key pieces:
"I regret that I am unable to present my father's request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed."
"I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it."
"You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan."
Why, what and how each have a different purpose. Why give the motivation for your call and when done well, taps into their motivations. What reduces uncertainty. A vague request can fill the recipient with anxiety, and the easiest way to deal with that is to just ignore it. Finally, How reduces cognitive load. The recipient doesn't need to work out possibilities and contemplate what to do. You have given him a clear call to action.
Make it Personal
The final piece of princess Leia's request is possibly the most important. "Help me, Obiwan. You're my only hope." This makes the request personal by letting Obiwan know that she came to him for a reason, and not just because he is around or just to make the connection. Obiwan is best person to help her here. When you ask someone for help, let them know that you are looking for them personally, not just any warm body. Point out to them why you chose to ask them in particular. Is it a skill they have, a trust you have in their judgment; some trait they excel in? In advice to request seekers, author Tim Ferris points out that if you can google it, you don't need to ask for help, and if you ask for help when you can google the answer, you frustrate busy people.
So Princess Leaia lined up the four principles very well. She framed the connection, she was specific with Why, What and How, and she made it personal. Do that with your requests, and you increase your chances to overthrow the Evil Empire that is plaguing you.
To finish, let me give an example:
Hello readers and listeners, thank you for following along these months with the newsletter and the newly launched podcast. <<Framing the relationship>> One of my goals in putting this out is to build an audience in order to make my dream of a book a reality and I need help getting the word out. << Specific: Why>> The number one way that audiences grow is by word-of-mouth. <<Specific: What>> So please, if you like the newsletter, tell a friend about it, forward it, or post a link on Facebook to the blog post. <<Specific: How>> A trusted friend's recommendation is one hundred times more effective in getting a new subscriber than an ad or promotion. <<Personal>> So please, share the newsletter, review the podcast on itunes, and let people know how much you enjoy The Networked Leader and Mandatory Cocktail Hour.