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Advice / Job Search / Networking

The Simple Change That'll Make Asking a Stranger for Help Much More Successful

Last week, I got two emails. On the surface, they were very similar—both messages were from aspiring writers I didn’t know, both were polite and professional, and both were requesting advice and potentially an introduction to my editor.

However, my reaction to the two messages was very different. I was eager to help the first person and annoyed at the thought of assisting the second.

I couldn’t figure out why, until I went back and reread the messages.

The only distinction? The first person explained why she was asking me specifically for help—and I was flattered as a result. Meanwhile, the other person made his request with no explanation.

So, what can you learn from this to make sure you’re in the first camp?

Identify the Reason

Most of us request favors from strangers at some point (if not often) during our professional careers.

And we never pick the recipients of our asks randomly. There’s always a concrete reason we’ve chosen someone, whether it’s because he or she has the right expertise, works at the right place, or knows the right people.

But our mistake is assuming that our “why” is implied. However, this “why” is actually really important, as it gives you a chance to compliment the recipient while providing some context.

Include the Reason

Next time you’re asking someone for help (whether he or she is a stranger or not), make sure you provide an honest yet gratifying explanation of why you’re reaching out.

Let’s break down the two most common reasons.

You’d Like the Person’s Advice

Flattering explanations:

  • “I’m looking for insight into [topic], and since you’ve got such a strong background into [field], I thought you’d be the best person to ask.”
  • “Your impressive LinkedIn profile makes me believe you’d give great feedback on [topic].”
  • “I’ve been stumped by [problem] for a while; I figured that since you’re an expert in [subject], you might be able to offer some help.”

You’d Like to Know More About a Company

Flattering explanations:

  • “Because you’ve been with [employer] for [length of time], I’m confident you’d be able to give me a really thoughtful, accurate representation of what it’s like to work there.”
  • “I know you only joined [employer] [length of time], but since you’re working [in the department I’m interested in, in a position similar to the one I’m applying to, with people I’ll be working with], your description of how it’s been so far would be incredibly helpful and relevant.”
  • “As a [job title] for [employer], you clearly have a lot of influence, and I’d absolutely love to get your thoughts on the culture, values, and work style.”

Put it Together

So, after you’ve clarified why you’re emailing that person specifically and found the right way to phrase it, it’s time to weave your explanation into your request. Your best bet is using this template:

Introduce yourself + make your request + provide your reason

Here’s what it looks like in action:

Dear Ben,

I’m a freelance web designer who’s looking to transition to a full-time role. Since you’ve got a fantastic reputation in the design community and have worked with many of the agencies I’m interested in, I was wondering if I could get some advice about making the switch. Would you be available for a quick phone call or answering a few questions over email?

If you’ve got too much on your plate, I completely understand.

Thanks so much,


Now that you’ve got this trick up your sleeve, your requests for help should definitely be more successful.

Photo of woman on computer courtesy of Shutterstock.