The Wrong Way to Ask for Career Advice

Pro-tips for how to reach out for professional guidance

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Right before Christmas, I got an email asking for advice. This person was negotiating a new contract to host a podcast. They wanted to know if I thought their current fee was too high or low. I’m sure I’ve low-balled myself countless times over the years, so I’m usually happy to help people figure out their personal price point. But this email really rubbed me the wrong way. I’d like to briefly explain how basic courtesies can make or break your hunt for professional feedback, mentorship, or counseling.

First off, this person did not introduce themself. They assumed I’d know who they are. Out of curiosity, I searched for their name in my inbox and we’d intersected on a group message a year prior. Unless you were on a Zoom together last week or shared Thanksgiving in 2019, assume that the person you are emailing does not know who you are or remember you. Use phrases like, “We met in 2019 at an event in Midtown,” or, “We both know James.” Establishing or reminding your potential advisor of a point of connection will keep them reading on to your request.

Which brings me to my next point: This person did not use “please” or “thank you.” They didn’t acknowledge that I was probably pretty busy and that their email was interrupting me during a hectic work season, amidst a particularly shitty year for life in general. Phrases like, “I know you’ve got a lot going on…,” or a straightforward, “Sorry to hit you up for advice when you are probably slammed,” go a long way. Thank you for seeing me before you ask me to see you.

Make your ask (and keep it to one and done), but NEVER use phrases like “I just want to pick your brain,” or, “Let me know if it’s better to get on a call,” or, “How did you get your start?”

And then, wish me well. I know it sounds perfunctory and, honestly, you don’t have to mean it, but a nice thought goes oddly far these days. Even cliches like, “Hope you’re hanging in there,” or, “Wishing you and your family well,” are just… nice. The world isn’t nice right now. So dole out bits of nice wherever possible, especially when you are asking someone for free advice. Want serious brownie points? Compliment a recent project in the postscript. None of us are immune to some ego stroking or, at the very least, an indication that our work isn’t going out into an abyss.

Think I’m old-fashioned? Maybe. More like overwhelmed. And a little grouchy. I’m tired of muting myself on Zoom calls so I can clean out the dishwasher or check the depressing headlines. So just be extra gracious with your syntax when asking for help. Otherwise, be prepared to get an invoice with my response… or no reply at all.

(Actually, that sounds harsh. Of course I responded to this person! But I never got a thank you. I know, I’m so sensitive. I’d love to hear about your experiences giving or getting advice. Let me know in the comments.)

Here’s the original email, with slight edits and blacked-out identifiers:

Hi Manoush,

My contract with XXX is up for renewal in a few months and I’m planning on negotiating my hosting fee. I’m currently getting $XK per episode and I have no idea if that’s high or low. You’ve been doing this for far longer than I have so I was hoping to get your industry insight. What are hosting fees for this kind of podcasting? If you don’t mind my asking, what were you getting?

XXX

Here’s the email I would have enjoyed receiving:

Hi Manoush,

It’s XX, from XX. We’ve never met but you may remember we both worked with XX and were supposed to meet at their conference in 2019.

Anyway, sorry to barge into your inbox, but I need to (briefly) ask you for some advice: My contract with XX is up for renewal and I’m planning on negotiating my hosting fee. I’m currently getting $XK per episode and I have no idea if that’s high or low. I think I’m doing a great job, but I also want to make sure I’m not under or overselling myself. I’d be so grateful for any guidance you can offer.

Thank you so much for taking the time. I’m sure your schedule is crazy these days.

Wishing you and your family sanity,
XXX

P.S. I loved your recent episode of TED Radio Hour about the lifecycle of cities. I’d never heard of that amazing city in India that pops up every 12 years!

I’m writing here every week. Please follow me and tell me things. To hang out even more, find me on Twitter, sign up for my newsletter, and listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

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