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Colleenby Colleen Wainwright | The Communicatrix

This month: How to ask for help…and how not to.

A side effect of growing older or spending a lot of time working in a particular field of endeavor is that one collects a great deal of knowledge and experience, which can, in sum (and with a little application of brain power) be quite instructive. Most of us elderly types are more than happy to share this knowledge: there’s little point in hoarding it, and giving feels good.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way—and a really wrong way—to go about asking for help. So whether the help you’re seeking takes the form of information, advice, or an outright favor, pay attention: I’m going to give away the keys to the kingdom here.

1. Be polite

I’m not sure if the staggeringly rude nature of some requests I’ve gotten for information or advice or yes, even help can be chalked up to narcissism, cultural differences or general cluelessness, but damn, people, think about it: would you be inclined to help someone who did the verbal equivalent of crapping on your lawn or punching you in the face in the process of asking?

Words like “please” and “thank you” are the bare minimum. To clarify: some form of “please” or “thank you,” if not those actual words, should accompany any request. You don’t have to climb up my rectum, but you do have to be nice. If you are not sure how to be nice in the language of the person whom you’re addressing, run the request by a native speaker first. If you have no emotional IQ—not well socialized, a little Asperger-y, generally clueless—you will need to find an acquaintance who is to vet your query or approach. (And get yourself a book on the subject, and learn at least how to pretend like you have entry-level emotional intelligence.)

It is unbelievable—as in “bewildering” and “sad”—to me that I even have to list this one, but there it is. Numero uno. If you are assy, you will get a short reply expressing my inability to help. (But it will be polite!)

2. Do your homework

There is a wonderful acronym in the geek world: RTFM. It stands for “Read the F*cking Manual,” and if you take its advice to heart, it will serve you well in this and many other aspects of your life.

Do not ask questions that can be easily answered via a quick trip to the library. Definitely don’t ask questions that can be easily answered via the Google.

If you are fortunate enough to obtain a favor in the form of real-life contact—an audition, an interview, a meet-and-greet, etc.—make sure you know everything you possibly can about that situation before you go. If it’s a casting director, know that person’s history and body of work as well as her likes and dislikes, the location of the office, and any other salient info. If you’re asking a question of someone, check to see if that person has answered the question elsewhere already. Or if the question has been answered already by someone else.

3. Be respectful of bandwidth, both literally and figuratively

Do not send gigantic headshots attached to your emails. Do not clog up a casting director’s fax machine with anything that has not been expressly requested. Do not use your time at the mic during the Q&A section of a speaker’s event to give the room five minutes of dig-me info; ask a (good) question (see below).

Do not blather on and on and on in an email or letter or meeting; be concise and to the point.

Bottom line: you are taking up someone’s time. If you take up too much, someone else gets cheated, either the askee or another asker. Plus, you will be branded That Annoying Person, which pretty much never works in your favor.

4. Ask good questions

Bad questions are vague and general; good questions are specific and focused. Bad questions take up great swaths of someone’s time; good questions are quick and to the point (see bandwidth issue, above).

  • How do I get an agent?
  • Should I become an actor?
  • Which headshot do you like best?
  • Should I move from (city or town) to (city or town)?
  • Will you help me get an agent?

If you are wondering how to tell if your question is a good one or a bad one, here’s a hint: good questions take time to craft. Bad ones bubble up out of nowhere, all by themselves.

Slow down. Think. Research. Think some more. Write out your question. Put it away and come back to it.

Or don’t. But think about it: if you can’t take the time to draft a quality question, what are the odds I’m going to be motivated to spend the time drafting a quality response?

5. Add value

Believe it or not, you have an opportunity to give the person you’re asking something beyond the warm, fuzzy feeling of being useful. My favorite queries are the ones where the writer lets me know specifically what’s been useful to them about my column; my next-favorite is the kind where they tell me specifically where they got confused about what I was saying. I’m human, and not only do I like a compliment, but I like to know precisely how I am—or am not—being helpful. This helps me. This adds value.

Good queries can also be the seed of a column for me. That’s right: if your question is good enough, I might spend a whole column on it!

Of course, really bad queries can, too. In fact, this month’s column was born out of my stark horror over one of the most egregious requests I’ve gotten yet. But I’d really rather have next month’s spring from the well of delight—so much more delightful to sip from.

So how about it? What’s your best question for me?

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BOOK(s) OF THE MONTH: With multiple demands on your attention (not to mention the stress of family gatherings, crowded stores, and Mass Holiday Fever), this time of the year can be tricky for reading. My suggestion is not to stop, but to adapt: enjoy a collection of engrossing (no pun intended!) interviews with actors and other artists; pick up a  book of short stories; or re-read an old inspiring or engrossing favorite you haven’t picked up in a while. Just don’t give up—reading makes you smarter and keeps you saner!

Colleen Wainwright is a writerspeaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.