Let me help you help me help you.
July 13th, 2015
Regardless of where you are in your career, you will at some point hit a wall and need to get some outside input from a peer or mentor in your field. Having been on both ends of the “I need help!” spectrum, I’ve come to discover that there are ways that you can frame your needs to make your potential advisor more receptive to you, and can even help to encourage a healthy and happy long-term mentor relationship.
I’ve broken down the “help” process into five key points to keep in mind as you ask a prospective mentor for assistance with something (and above all, allow me to apologize for all my audacious alliteration).
Having a positive attitude when asking for help can make a world of difference. Most importantly, be willing to look for answers on your own, using the advice you get as a step in the right direction rather than the all-in-one solution to your problems. Just like how people wouldn’t want to fruitlessly assist in situations where they feel their help will be unused or ignored, they also don’t want to do all your work for you — you’ve gotta be willing to learn. Unused advice and expecting too much are two of the biggest ways we burn out our mentors and miss opportunities to learn valuable lessons.
Seek guidance first and foremost to put you in the right direction. Take a little and turn it into a lot.
Approach the chosen subject as informed as possible—know what you want and get to the point quickly. Avoid asking for general advice on a broad subject; be as specific as you can. When you ask specific questions, you are more likely to get relevant and detailed answers. When you ask vague questions or look for general advice (ie, “How do I start a business?” or “How do I make a game?”), it doesn’t provide a lot of direction for your advisor to go on, and may result in either no help or a lot of time wasted on unused advice in irrelevant areas.
Acknowledge the expertise of your advisor. Do your research and know what the person you’re approaching is good at. Don’t ask for help in a field that they don’t work in, or if you need to, acknowledge that you know they may not have the answer but see if they can point you in the right direction.
Does your mentor have a blog? Take a look at it. Have they already answered this question there? If yes, great! Problem solved; maybe even send them a thank-you comment that their blog was effective! If they’ve addressed the subject, but not the specific information that you need, reference the article and ask specific questions to help them know what exactly you’re looking for.
Be aware and respectful of your advisor’s situation. They likely don’t have a lot of time, so spending a few minutes with you either in person or online could be a big investment for them. Respect their time by being succinct and gracious. If they take a long time to respond, or their response isn’t as in-depth as you would like, take that as an opportunity to do your own research or find someone else to ask.
Try to stick to email when possible unless they suggest otherwise. I also suggest that we stop using the cannabilistic term “pick your brain;” a conversation should focus on mutual discussion, whereas a “brain picking” suggests more of a one-sided information siphoning.
Be gracious and thankful. People will feel like their time investment in helping you was worth it if they feel that you genuinely appreciate their help, and even more so if you follow up to explain or show how you’ve implemented their advice. A quick follow-up a few weeks later about how a piece of advice has affected you can mean a lot, and can even spark conversation for further mentorship opportunities.
1. Brief introduction to yourself and your problem
“Hi, I’m Carol Mertz. I’m a game designer from St. Louis, and I’m looking to publish my first card game.”
2. Why and how you think they can help
“I’ve been following your Kickstarter for Super Successful Cards, and I’ve been impressed at the speed and quality of your print production. I’m trying to get pointers for where to get print quotes, and I thought you could help point me in the right direction.”
3. How you’ve been helping yourself
“I’ve researched and requested quotes from a couple printers both within the US and overseas, but I’ve hit a bit of a wall and am looking now for more personal experiences and recommendations.”
4. Specific questions
“Do you mind my asking who you used for printing? Did you like them, and do you have any insight on additional costs or common problems I should be prepared for as I prep for print?”
“Thank you for your time. Best of luck as you continue to distribute Awesome Card Game!”
And that’s all it takes. Soon you and your mentor can be two majestic sea turtles slapping fins in the great blue oceans of knowledge and success. Best of luck as you seek out help and pursue healthy, long-term mentor relationships!
This article is a rough transcript of my presentation, “Let Me Help You Help Me Help You,” for the 2015 IGDASTL Microtalks Series.