How to Ask a Busy Person for Advice (and get an answer)

Step 1: do your homework.

By Camille Styles

We’ve all been in situations where we need advice or mentorship, but so often, the person who can best provide it is insanely busy and in-demand. How do you break through the clutter of their inbox and get them to take notice of your plea for help? Well, I’m certainly not the busiest or most qualified person to dole out advice, but I do get hit up with a lot of questions from people who are starting their careers or want to launch a blog or break into lifestyle media. While I answer as many as I can, I’ve got to admit that some fall through the cracks due to a sheer lack of time.

Recently though, I received one request where the person emailing was so successful in getting my attention, I wouldn’t have dreamed of saying no.

I thought it might be helpful to distill her approach into a list of 4 simple techniques that any of us can use when we need to ask a busy person for advice. And of course, I’d love to hear any methods you’ve successfully used (or that someone’s used on you), so leave a comment and share your experience.

featured image by @polabur

image by @jenniferelizabeth

Step 1: Share a genuine and specific compliment.

My recent example started her email with “I so admire you and what you’ve done with your career,” then went on to include a couple specific things she loved about this site that she felt set it apart from others. It sent the message that not only did she put time and thought into her note; it was also specifically directed at me and not a mass email she was sending out to twenty other lifestyle bloggers. I understood from her email why I could provide a distinct value that someone else couldn’t.

camille styles's austin office makeover with target

Step 2: Define what you’re asking for and how much time it’ll require.

“Would you be able to spare five minutes on the phone with me? A friend and I are starting a lifestyle site about travel, and I want to be conscientious of any pitfalls that might occur as we setup our business.”

She laid out an ask that was very clear, to-the-point, and minimal work for me. If I’m in the midst of a hectic week, I’m much more inclined to say yes to five minutes on the phone than “meeting up for coffee to pick my brain” (a common request.) Then she went on to share a quick overview of what she hoped to get out of our phone call so that I knew how I could help.

image by urban outfitters

Step 3: Be prepared with specific questions.

On our phone call, after quick hello’s, she mentioned that she wanted to be respectful of my time and dove into her list of questions. Yep, she had prepared a list of questions in advance which is another key tactic, and they weren’t answers that could be found by a quick google search. For example, instead of asking “How did you start your blog” (which is a long answer that could easily be found here) she asked if I worked with a lawyer when I setup my business and what my corporate structure is. In other words, do your homework.

image by kate zimmerman for this guide to flowers

Step 4: Show gratitude.

A little goes a long way: acknowledge how the person helped you and express how grateful you are. A simple “thank you so much for the help!” will not only encourage them to help you in the future, but also to extend a helping hand to others who may be in your shoes.

One final note about my recent all-star example: she stuck to our original agreement. Even though we were having a great conversation, when 5 minutes was up she graciously thanked me for taking time to speak with her and I wished her the very best. And we both hung up the phone feeling great about the exchange. Double win!