Tread Lightly: How to Ask for Free Advice (Without Being a Jerk)

how to ask for advice
Image via Flickr

“Want to get together for coffee? I’d love to pick your brain.” Oh, how many times I’ve heard this phrase.

When you’re a creative entrepreneur — whether it be a photographer, freelancer, contractor, whatever — people around you are constantly wanting to know what your secret is. They want your insight. They want your advice. And often, you’re more than happy to give it, because someone before you gave it to you; that’s how we do it. We learn from each other. We help each other out.

But there’s a fine line between wanting to get some guidance on your next big step, and asking for the kind of free information that a consultant would usually charge for. When you’re just starting off down a new path, it’s crucial to know how to ask for advice without looking like, well, a demanding jerk.

Be clear about your intentions: “I can’t tell you how flattering it is to be approached by representatives from major companies seeking my wisdom and advice. It shows they are listening, and like what I have to say,” wrote Adrienne Graham for Forbes in 2011, “But often I find the road ends when they are just on a fact finding mission. That mission is to pick my brain to gather as much free intel and knowledge they need to make their jobs easier.”

If you’re asking for someone’s time and advice, it’s best to be up-front about what it is that you want. Are you trying to get free intel that you or your company would otherwise pay for? Then you’re better off hiring a consultant. But if you really do just need some peer advice — is it worth it to become an LLC? What’s the best website to host your photos on?  How did you make it through a particularly hard emotional time? — let the person know that you’re on the hunt for specific information or help, so they know in advance that you’re not just fishing for free information.

See if it’s available somewhere else: If the person you want to ask is a blogger, see if they’ve ever written about the topic you need help with. Coming into a meeting you’ve asked for unprepared — and asking a question they’ve already answered — doesn’t set a great tone. Do your homework before you do the asking.

Appreciate their time: The person you’re asking is probably busy. We’re all busy. So don’t expect that they can set aside hours and hours to chitty-chat about whatever it is that’s bothering you.

“Remember that, in asking for an informational interview, you’re literally asking someone to put his or her work on hold to help you,” writes the Muse’s Elliott Bell, “Show your contact you understand this by saying, ‘I can only imagine how busy you must get, so even 15-20 minutes would be so appreciated.'”

Lunch, a half-hour, one drink — be precise, work with their schedule, and don’t be miffed if you only get 20 minutes.

Make it easy: For you, this is going to be immensely helpful. For the person you’re asking, it probably won’t be. Meeting them — both physically and emotionally — where they are is a way to make it less inconvenient for them. Offer to come to the neighborhood where they work or near where they live, or ask if you can do it remotely, over email or Skype. It’s polite, and it’s also very helpful for someone who’s trying to balance a crazy schedule.

Take advice where you can get it: Ideally, you’d like to have lunch with someone who’s really big in your industry — but if all you can get is a few minutes with someone they work with, or someone who’s got slightly less star-power, take it!

“One of the reasons my friends and I were successful early on was because we always asked a lot of questions,” Sir Richard Branson told Entrepreneur in 2013, adding that he “was willing to listen to anyone who could help, and over the years many people volunteered their advice.” When it becomes clear that you’re a respectful, easy-to-work-with person who’s just looking for some help, you’ll be surprised how many people want to help.

Offer something in exchange: If you’re asking someone to have a coffee and talk with you, you’d better be the one ponying up for the coffee. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but if I’m helping you grow your business, I expect at least a free latte.

Take “no” graciously: If someone is just too busy, assume it’s not you, it’s their schedule. Don’t decide that person is a jerk just because they can’t make time for your request — and don’t assume it’ll never happen. Don’t push the issue, and seek advice elsewhere. You never know — you might run into them at a conference in the future and finally get the opportunity you need, but if you pestered them first, that’s much less likely.

How do you ask for advice from your peers? How do you field advice questions? Tell us in the comments. 


Hanna Brooks Olsen FOLLOW >

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.