How to ask for help

Unlocking freelancing's closed doors

Working for yourself can often feel like walking down a corridor lined with locked doors. The thing you need – a commission, a person’s contact details, a piece of information – is on the other side and you don’t have the key.

What I’ve realised recently, however, is that you can, in fact, open those doors. All you have to do is ask. Here’s the rub though – I don’t particularly like asking for other people’s help, but the longer I work alone the more I realise that I need it. 

I don’t like asking for help mainly because I stubbornly want to work things out on my own (hello, introverted only child). I have this stupid idea in my head that a problem solved on your own trumps one that you needed assistance on. I also worry that I’ll annoy someone by asking what might be an obvious question – or perhaps I’m just scared of looking stupid. 

Cod psychology aside, the point is that asking for help isn’t easy. What I’ve learned recently is that the art of asking is a deeply valuable and underappreciated skill. I’ve let too many projects languish by the wayside when a well-place ask for help could have opened that door for me.

Ask the right person 

The first “person” I ask for help is always Google. I’ve found that most of the technical questions I have – like how to format an invoice, budget for taxes or pension options  – can be answered by reading blog posts and watching YouTube videos. Even finding someone’s contact details are usually searchable on the Internet. LinkedIn and Twitter will give you their job title, and if not also their email, will tell you the format. 

Of course, there are plenty of questions that aren’t Googleable. I find that often, they’re money-related. A big one for freelancers is, of course, asking about rates. When you ask someone for help setting a rate, it’s a loaded question because the implication is that you’re asking them to tell you their rate. As much as I believe it’s important to divorce your self-worth from your day rate, it’s easier said than done so no wonder people get cagey about this question.

What I’ve found to be transformative when it comes to asking for help about money is the power of community. I’m in a handful of freelancer groups and each of them provides me with the space to ask those tricky questions like “What should I say my rate is?” “Is this offer reasonable?” “How can I phrase this email asking for more money?”. 

Being in those groups has made me realise that in order to ask, first, you have to lay the foundations. If there are questions that keep coming up for you in your freelance life and you don’t already have people to ask, make strides to find them before you need them. 

Give as well as take

One of the groups I’m in is a big WhatsApp group for freelancers. I noticed someone post a message in there once in which they said that they wanted to meet up with other freelancers to pick their brains about how to make freelancing work. The person who posted it mentioned that they didn’t really check the group much or post anything themselves. No one replied to it.  

The problem with that message was that the person only wanted to take advice, but not share anything in return. What a lot of people forget is that most of us are just figuring it all out as we go along. There’s no big secret that any one person has, we all learn as much from our peers sharing their stories as we do seeking out someone more established for guidance. 

If anything, your peers might have more time for you than those on the “rung” above you. When I was a newbie, I would be too shy to ask questions face-to-face at events, instead, I’d try to email the person afterwards. Having now spoken on a few panels myself in the last year, I’ve realised the importance of taking the opportunity to ask your question when it’s right there in front of you. It’s much easier for me to give a detailed answer right there and then, rather than the next day, over email when I’m also doing other things. 

When it comes to the actual question you’re asking, the more specific you are the better. My favourite question to ask is How did you actually do that? I’ll be at an event and a panellist might make a throwaway statement like “And then we got podcast sponsorship”. My question will be: How did you actually do that?

The reason I love this question is that you’re asking that person something only they can answer. All too often when we reach out to someone, we are broad and vague in our ask. (See previous example about the Whatsapp pick-your-brain message).  Whenever someone has asked me something very specific, it’s a lot easier for me to answer it. It won’t have to write an essay to reply or do any research to find the answer for them.

Remember that everyone is trying their best

Most people want to help others. When you ask for help, presume this to be the case. If you don’t get a reply straight away, check your ask was reasonable (a good litmus test for this is asking yourself if you would ask them this question in-person) and follow up. If they don’t reply, don’t be quick to write them off as a jerk. We’re all drowning in emails and DMs.  

Speaking of DMs, be mindful of the format you’re asking them in. I know different people have different views on this, but I don’t like receiving questions from strangers via DM. It’s why I have my email address right there in my bio. Again this is a personal preference, but I’m also much more amenable to a 15-minute phonecall than lengthy questions via email.

And if you’re on the receiving end of asks, find a way to answer them as best you can. I know that I’m not always able to get to all the questions I get sent. It’s actually something I want to work on myself as I do want to help people out as best I can. 

In fact, let me ask you something right now – leave a comment below to let me and everyone else know what you’ve found effective when asking someone for help. Or what holds you back from asking in the first place? 

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The Professional Freelancer is written by Anna Codrea-Rado, illustrations are by Léo Hamelin.
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