• December 22, 2014

The Art of 'the Ask'

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Development officers know how to ask for gifts. They start with research, understand how to approach a potential donor, and are able to figure out how much to request—sometimes getting far more than the wealthy person expected to part with. They know, in short, the art of "the ask."

Academics are frequently in the position of asking for things: jobs, book contracts, promotion, tenure, grants, and awards. Certain rhetorical moves go along with those requests—justifications, rationales, and linguistic rituals. You need to fit with the form, adhere to convention, but ultimately, your main goal should be to make it easy for whoever is in control of the decision to say yes.

What surprises me is how many academics, when they ask informally for professional favors, forget that make-it-easy-to-say-yes part. The skills they used in crafting their job letters often desert them when they want a relative stranger to read their manuscript or give them career advice.

Last fall I received a request from the director of a teaching and learning center at an excellent liberal-arts college in the Midwest. She wrote to invite me to speak to her faculty about writing and publishing, something I've been asked to do before. No big deal.

The big deal was the way she asked. By the time I finished reading her e-mail I would have done anything this woman wanted, including scrubbing her toilet. Flattery accompanying requests is expected and often hollow, but she was able to fluff me up in ways that were smart and felt genuine. She made it clear why she was asking me—in particular—to do this particular thing.

As it turned out, her training had been in rhetoric. She knew how to make a compelling argument and happened to have a delightful personality—a winning combination.

Like some people and many dogs, I love to be useful. And like my fellow advice columnists in The Chronicle, I am often on the receiving end of queries more specific than what I can cover in an essay. When someone writes to me with a question I feel competent to answer, I'm happy to do so. But if you ask something vague and overwhelming, like "How do I get published in The Chronicle?," you're going to get an answer like "read the submissions guidelines."

If you wonder if I think your idea for a journal article is good, I'll tell you that what I think doesn't matter; I can't read the minds of editors. It's up to the writer to be familiar enough with a publication to be able to anticipate what might be of interest. The answer to "How do I write a book proposal?" can be found in a variety of books.

Just recently I got an e-mail from a woman I knew a while ago, though not all that well: "I want to really start focusing on expanding my writing, possibly beyond the 'peer reviewed,' 'ivory tower' world. What advice would you give me on the start of this? Frankly, I'm not sure what to ask, so I'll leave it open-ended and let you tell me what I should know."

To ask such a broad and general question is to require that I write more than I have time or energy for, especially if you're not someone who regularly feeds me or offers dog-sitting assistance.

I appreciate compliments as much as the next guy. Those of us who flay ourselves in public by writing for a living need all the ego-stroking we can get, especially when anonymous critics can be so vicious. When people who make nice with me then go on to request help, I'm primed to do what I can for them. If they're really kind and sincere, I'll go out of my way. That has led to lovely epistolary friendships.

But it still shocks me to get an e-mail from an academic I've never heard of who starts right in with what sounds more like a demand than a request. I respond to every message I get and I try to be polite. But some of these folks just tick me off. Am I really going to spend my time doing them favors?

Like many writers, I often look for opportunities to interrupt my own writing with a quick diversion. If a question is specific and manageable, I write back immediately. If it's huge and unwieldy and is going to require lots of thought and work, it slips to the bottom of the e-pile, sometimes to languish there forever.

If you need professional help but don't want to pay for it, you should bear in mind the skills of development professionals when you go asking for favors. The same tactics and techniques you use to get a job or apply for a grant should come into play when you ask a colleague to read your work and comment, when you want career advice, or when you approach an acquaintance for help navigating the publication process.

Be clear about what you want and make it easy for the recipient to comply. If you have a lot of general questions and rampant confusion, don't write until you've done enough homework to be able to narrow the focus of your request. You shouldn't start by going to scarce resources; that should come only after you've exhausted the most well-trod and easy paths.

Recognize that you are asking for a favor and that you're not necessarily going to be in a position to reciprocate. Realize that for someone who doesn't love you, poring over your prose is not generally a reward in itself. You may find your work fascinating, but don't assume anyone else will. If you want a critique, be specific about what your concerns are and tell the reader what to read for. If you want only praise, then say you're asking for a blurb for the back of the book. Or send the manuscript to your mother.

While on the hiring committee for a high-level position in academic administration, I was shocked by the shoddy quality of many of the candidates' cover letters. Why didn't these people know better? Why didn't they have someone else read the drafts for them? Is it because they not only didn't know how to ask, but were afraid to? It's been said before but apparently bears repeating: The first person to read your request should not be the one who's in a position to deny it. Get help. (And you should know better than to use pink paper or a funky font to get attention.)

It seems to me there are some fundamental questions you need to answer before you ask someone for help: Why are you asking that particular person? Why should that person help you? And why now?

First you have to show that you know something about the place or person you're approaching for assistance. That is so basic that it should go without saying, but it doesn't. Until you've read countless generic letters that were clearly printed out in batches, you might not appreciate how easy it is to spot the absence of particularity. Flattery can feel unctuous, but a demonstration of sincere appreciation and understanding goes a long way toward getting a reader on your side.

It takes some art and craft to come up with a brief and compelling way to describe yourself—one that points the reader toward the highlights of your CV without too much repetition. When you're asking virtual strangers for a favor, you can't assume they are going to read more than a few paragraphs of your request. They're unlikely to open attachments until, well, they get attached to you.

If you're up against a deadline, don't pass the panic on to someone else. Allow people plenty of time to get back to you, but do make it clear if the project has a sell-by date.

Most of us are compassionate and understand the need to finish an article before the baby is born, or that coming up for tenure is a stressful process and you don't want to leave things until the last minute. So be clear about your deadline, and when you'll need to hear back. If you don't get a response in that amount of time, check in with a quick note. We all forget stuff all the time, and not because we don't think it's important. I never mind being reminded in a gentle fashion.

In addition to training students how to do research, to analyze data, to make a coherent argument, to write in English prose, and all the other things we try to cram into their years of study, we professors should spend more time helping graduate students learn how to ask for things. Then maybe we'd figure out how to do it for ourselves.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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