Why Should I Help You?
post # 80 — May 17, 2006 — a Careers, Client Relations post
A reader asks:
I’m currently working on the definition of a body of knowledge that will ultimately be submitted to the International Standards Office as a global standard. As part of the process, it’s necessary for me to approach a number of experts in the field and persuade them to join an advisory body. What is the best way to approach those experts? How would you recommend that we best persuade them to contribute their time and support to what will inevitably have to be a compromise document (which may not entirely agree with their particular beliefs and methods)?
As a frequently published author with some reputation as a consultant in my field, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of (many, many) requests like these, so I’ll answer from that perspective.
It’s always amazing to me how many people contact me, suggesting we meet immediately (“You don’t know me. How’s Friday?”) or telling me precisely what a significant benefit it will be to them if I were to give them my time and attention. (“I’m contacting you because you can be really helpful to me.”)
It strikes me as odd that people don’t think they have to give me a reason to help them, other than what’s in it for them. Even if the person you’re contacting is immensely charitable, isn’t it likely that a person in a position to do a favor for you probably has had other requests for assistance? Shouldn’t it therefore be obvious that you have to make a (credible) case as to why they should help you?
Notice, this isn’t about finding the right pick-up line. (“I’ve heard of you, you’ve never heard of me, but I know we have mutual interests and can be of assistance to each other if we can meet to get to know each other better.”) (Yes, all these quotes are real experiences I’ve had)
Instead, before you make contact, you need to think about and come up with a substantively valid reason, why it would be in that person’s interest to help you (among others) out. That reason has to have emotional meaning for the person from whom you want the favor.
It sounds a bit blunt, but every human being, when asked for something, is always going to ask themselves “What’s in it for me?” This doesn’t mean that they are always venal and selfish – it might just mean that it furthers a cause they believe in. But if they are going to respond to you, it’s going to be because helping you is going to make them feel good in some way, not because it’s going to make you feel good.
So, what are the possibilities? Well, I won’t be able to list them all, but here are some of the appeals (some noble, some not so noble) that have worked on me at various stages of my career. (Disclaimer: I give no guarantee that they will ever work again! Don’t take this blogpost as an open invitation to call me and ask for a favor!)
a) It will advance a cause you believe in
b) It will give you a chance to work with people you respect
c) You will meet interesting people who you might not otherwise have a chance to interact with
d) It will help spread your name and fame
e) You’ll be helping the next generation avoid the mistakes you made
f) You don’t want to be left out and let other people set the agenda
g) You’ll learn a lot by participating
h) Your friends are involved
i) You’re enemy / chief rival is involved
j) This is your chance to leave a legacy that will live on after you
k) It’s a way to get feedback on your ideas before you have to commit yourself publicly
l) You’ll be publicly thanked and recognized as a prime contributor
m) It will introduce your ideas to a whole new group of people
n) The people seeking your help are especially deserving because they are neglected or disadvantaged
There are more, but that should be enough for you to be going on.
Hey, everyone! What appeals have worked on you?
Carl Singer said:
I don’t know enough context of the reader (David in Client Relations) who is requesting standards help—BUT I can provide inputs from my standards related situations. (I sit on the Management Board of the IEEE Software & Systems Engineering Standards Committee and I am the working group chair for a series of international standards—all my partcipants / colleagues are volunteers.)
Yes the list of 14 benefits is compelling but that doesn’t assure successful recruiting.
In general, I find that recruiting of volunteers to participate in standards efforts is done in one of two ways—(1) broadcast—ask groups of people who are Subject Matter Experts to sign up. That is “advertise” and try to attract some from a population of likely candidates. (2) personally approach acquaintances—experts (peers) whom we know (or a friend-of-a-friend, so to speak.) With the latter we frequently get honest reasons for not volunteering—frequently workload—hopefully coupled with suggestions of other people we my try, and if necessary a “link” or reference—“tell X that I suggested that he might be an ideal participant.”
So I guess the key is who is asking more than the underlying reasons for participation.
I believe the dynamics of approaching a stranger (if that is the case with David in Client Relations) is really putting someone on the spot. And apparently not yielding much success.
posted on May 17, 2006