How to Ask for Things
My first and only manners-centric piece (plus some inspiration)
Each month, I send out two emails: one free, to all of my subscribers, and one paid to my $7/month subscribers (the VIPs). I recommend the paid letter to those of you that are interested in pursuing a career that looks similar to mine, and to anyone looking for in depth versions of what I talk about in the free letter. I take requests and answer specific questions for paid subscribers, and I’m a great resource!!!! I swear. :-)
Today I want to write a bit about how to ask for things—advice, help, a recommendation, a job. I started my career as an artist pretty young and because I was a teenager in the suburbs, I was very reliant on the internet for getting my work into the world and connecting with other creatives.
Early on, I was taking a lot of unpaid/extremely low paid work to build up my portfolio and get practice. When you’re doing work for no money, you often rely on favors (I’m a photographer, so I always needed models, makeup artists, stylists, assistants, etc). I also needed, and still need, advice and help from people who know more than me. I need jobs, and recommendations to people that might be able to give them to me.
I’ve learned a lot over the years about what feels OK to ask of people, and how to hopefully make the ask-ee feel respected and valued, even when there’s no money or real benefit to them on the line. A lot of this knowledge has come from me observing the way I feel when people ask things of me—I have fumbled the bag when asking for favors, and many have fumbled the bag when asking me for favors. Please let me bestow some advice upon you so you don’t make the same mistakes that I have!
Maybe, hopefully, this will come off as very 101 to you guys. But I think it’s worth stating because I continue to get grown adults unintentionally reaching out to me in ways that feel icky, and I feel like I should say something, so here goes!
Introductions: First—when you’re reaching out to someone for business purposes, and are tempted to use flowery/ultra friendly language, ask yourself: Am I friends with this person? I don’t mean that you’ve exchanged comments with them on a post or two. I don’t mean that you heart react their stories and they sometimes thank you. I mean that you are FRIENDS. If the answer is no, refrain from any variation on: “Hey love/girl/queen/mama/babe" to open your message. These openers make my skin crawl, even when well intentioned. (gendered language is a WHOLE other conversation—never, ever assume what someone likes to be called!)
When asking for crew members to work on a project pro bono: I hate doing this but unfortunately it is sometimes necessary. Sometimes I take on free projects, gladly and willingly, but with no money involved, it becomes 100% about respect, enjoyment, and getting something out of the project. So, when I reach out to people for free work, here is a rough format I’ve come to like. It’s concise and respectful and honest.
When asking artists to create a project for you pro bono: This is a bit trickier, because it can be a really big ask. I’m specifically talking about when people (magazine editors, models, MUAs, “public figures” like musicians, actors, comics, etc) reach out to me asking for free photos. Most of the people who do this genuinely want to have fun and make something together, which I respect, but it’s all about how they communicate that.
I think it’s especially important to realize the amount of work that goes into what artists do—behind all of my images is days, weeks, sometimes months, of preproduction (ideation, location scouting, prop building, logistics). It also includes tons of outreach asking other people for pro bono help (like above), who also have their own labor intensive processes on the front and back end of projects (replenishing their kits, sanitizing, organizing, renting clothing, making returns, etc). And on the back end, lots of editing, collage, and general post production.
The most important thing when reaching out with asks like this is to be okay with hearing no. Not everyone has time, energy, or desire to work on your project. It’s just true! We all have bills to pay and lives to live, and not every project is a great fit. So rid yourself and your email of any entitlement. I have gotten emails from grown adults (who should know better) essentially saying, “you definitely know who I am, and it would be your honor to photograph me for free!” No, it would not. This is the fastest way to hear a hard no from me—I don’t care if you’re Beyonce. It’s pickle juice!!!! It’s the kiss of death!
Also, a great thing you can do when you want to work with someone for no money is to open yourself up to their creative ideas—this is true when I reach out to an artist that I love and just want to play around with. I try to go into these projects collaboratively, asking, “What can I do to make this valuable for you? A specific type of image that your portfolio is missing? To indulge you while you try out a new technique or style?” I didn’t always know how to go about this, and I’m still not perfect at it. But I think it’s really important.
Asking to work with or for someone: I love doing crew calls, and being able to add lots of new talented people to my list for when jobs arise. For example, when I have done model calls in the past, I really appreciate emails like this one…
This is great—quick introduction with a link to socials, and openness to my creative ideas. I did a shoot with this person! It was awesome and creatively fulfilling!
Another great email, this time asking to assist…
It’s really important to keep it concise—link to your work and socials, state what you can do for the person you’re emailing (in this case, carrying lots of C stands, which is REALLY IMPORTANT on set!). If you’re willing to work on free/passion projects, state that. It can be a great way to get in the door with people you want to work with, and can be a good way to figure out if you’re a good fit for each other’s projects in a low pressure environment.
All I’m saying is just to try and show utmost respect for the people you’re asking for things from—you ostensibly like them or their work enough to want something to do with it, so show that through the way that you speak to them!
When asking for advice: I’ve been very lucky in my career to have gotten advice from people I really admire. It’s invaluable to me as an artist and human being, and can light a fire under my ass to make things.
When I’m asking for advice, I like to stick to the same rules as above—be prepared for a no, or to not hear back. Note that you respect the person’s time and understand if helping is beyond their bandwidth. Also, flattery goes a long way here: if you trust and like the person enough to want to pick their brain, maybe explain to them why. Is their work or career inspiring to you? Is a specific project of theirs special to you? Why? But keep it brief.
If you’re lucky enough to receive a response, always, always say thank you. Maybe it’s because I was raised in the south and would get in trouble as a kid for not extending gratitude to people, but it’s always a little disappointing to me when I go out of my way to send a thoughtfully crafted email response to someone asking for advice and they follow it up with silence. It rubs me the wrong way. It’s so easy to thank someone for their time, so do it! Even if you don’t love what they said.
Okay, that’s all I have on this. Like I said earlier—I’m not perfect at this! I’ve screwed it up many times, and it’s taken me a while to gain the experience and knowledge that I have now. That’s why I share it with youuuuuuu <3
Here are a few things I’ve been watching/looking at/reading/appreciating lately…
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