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Passion, People and Principles

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

David (Maister) said:

Thnaks, Carl. I hope no-one will miss your key message – it matters more who’s asking than why.

Also, I assume no-one will miss the connection to marketing, selling and business development in general.

As Carl notes, (and my reader did acknowledge in a portion I omitted) a referral (“So-and-so suggested I gave you a call”) is a thousand times more likely to get my attention.

But you’d be amazed at how often I’ve never heard of the “so-and-so” that is mentioned. “You don’t know him? Well, he knows about you and suggested I call you.”

Not likely to work, folks. Knowing about me is not knowing me.

posted on May 17, 2006

Matt Moore said:

i. I generally find that appeals to vanity work wonders. And these can be quite subtle (as some of the ones on your list are David).

ii. It’s critical to outline who the audience for this activity (be it speaking or writing) is. If that audience is one that your target wants to reach, then it will be a win-win. If they don’t want to reach them, then they probably shouldn’t be involved in the first place.

iii. The first is always the hardest. Once you have that “name”, you gain respectability.

iv. I have grown a little cynical about working with “big names”. If I was organising an event or a publication or a small project, I would rather have a passionate “footsoldier” rather than a primadonna “expert”.

posted on May 17, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Matt, this “vain prima donna with a little bit of a name” thanks you for your contribution (chuckle.)

Anyone else had success in this area with different approaches?

posted on May 18, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I served as general counsel for a large non-profit for ten years, and I agree with Carl’s point about the improtance of who makes the request.

I had success asking friends/experts to make the request or set up a preliminry meeting/contact for me.

One important piece of information on the minds of potential committee members involves an estimate of the time required. People are reluctant to volunteer without an end date and deadlines—and a clear understanding of when participation is required (for meetings/conferences/telephone calls)

BTW, I have served on such commitees in the role of a passionate, vain, prima donna foot soldier without any name recognition or influence. But I am thoughtful and bring doughnuts more than most.

posted on May 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Bill, so that’s the secret! Doughnuts! I knew I was missing something in my interpersonal style.

We have come to rely on you, Bill, for the essential truth!

posted on May 18, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I thought long and hard before deciding to release my “doughnuts” trade secret. Bagels do not carry the same influence, based on my experience at least.

I did have two additional thoughts on ways that I have persuaded (conned?) busy people to help on these kinds of projects. I have used e-mail to make the intial contact and request for help—if I cannot get to the person through contacts. The experts wants to screen wackos/time wasters, but often are interested in truly worthwhile projects within their areas of interests.

Having also worked as a senior administrator within the academic world, do not overlook the connections (or vanity) of the tenured faculty members in your field.

They are eager for interesting projects and publishing opportunities. Professors have easily located e-mails, and they do check their e-mail.

They also may well have taught the very experts you are seeking to reach. A little research on the academic background on your targeted expert may yield big dividends. At a minimum, the favorable introduction can be made.

posted on May 18, 2006

Karen Love said:


I am subscriber to the “servants heart” mentality. It also has been described by Genie Fuller, Author of a book called, WINNING REFERRALS, as The Law of Reciprocity.

The give first attitude is great as long as there is a conscious awareness of the good ‘ole “diminishing return” self preservation.

I have had great success in making investments of time/favors with those in my centers of influence.These same folks will be an advocate for my cause prior to needing their assistance . It takes a bit longer but has longer lasting results.. It goes along with an older Harvey McKay publication called, “Dig Your Well Before You are Thirsty”… Sounds very Texas, too!

posted on May 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Karen, as a non-Texan I have a slightly different version: “We must build our relationships before we need them.”

(I wish I was better at living up to my own advice! Or at least had started out earlier understanding – and doing – all of this.)

posted on May 18, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

I think Robert Scoble has a great point when he says: “Show me your blog.” Unless the person writing is a complete fake, that’s where you find out wether you want to work with someone.

This last year I’ve found at least 20 ‘new’ people I’d trust enough to engage with. I’ve never met many of them but when I do, it is almost always a pleasant surprise.

Even those with whom I’ve had furious online ‘discussion.’

As David says: ‘make the relationship before you need it .’ Spot on.

posted on May 18, 2006

Jose said:

Thanks for submiting this article to the Festival of Job Hunting. It has been published at:


A link back would be appreciated. Also, please click on such link to submit articles for next’s week Festival.

posted on May 22, 2006

Manoj Ranaweera said:

I am just picking the general theme of “why should I help you?” and twisting it to say “I like to help you”. That’s exactly what Dennis Howlett has recently done for me. Once in a while you come across a person, who would be happy to help you without asking! And such is Dennis. I only came to know him less than 2 months ago. The introductions he is making will have a positive impact on my organisation. I am just hijacking this space to say “thank you Dennis”

posted on May 25, 2006

Kevin said:

Thanks for the advice, David. Just FYI, of the first nine people I targeted, five said yes, three said no due to time commitments (but that they might be able to assist later) and only one has failed to respond. So I must have done something right, for certain.

posted on June 10, 2006