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The 2 Inviolate Rules of Asking Strangers for Help

July 29th, 2009 by Bob Bly

Virtually every day I get at least one phone call or e-mail from some stranger asking for my help or advice or to answer a question … with 99% of them, of course, not offering to PAY me for my time and trouble.

If you want to approach someone you view as an expert or guru to ask a question or get advice, here are the 2 rules you should follow to maximize your chances of getting a positive response:

1–Don’t waste the person’s time.

2–Be cooperative.

ML, who called me just a few minutes ago, violated both these rules in short order.

She was looking for a ghostwriter to help her write her memoirs. It’s a service I don’t offer. I told her so immediately, and offered to hook her up with a ghostwriter who could help her (I know several good ones).

“Well, let me tell you my story,” she interrupted, and began telling me about her adventures in WWII as a nurse or whatever her book was about.

Why? I already said I was not the one to do the job. Why would I be interested?

So I cut her off, not because I am rude, but because I am extremely busy, asking her to go online to the Vendors page on my site so I could show her who to call.

“Oh, I hate the web and e-mail and all that stuff,” she told me, indicating that she couldn’t be bothered to do as I instructed.

I gave her the URL anyway and wished her luck.

“What is it you do?” she asked me, like I have the inclination or time to chat with her while deadlines press in all around me.

“I’m a copywriter,” I answered.

“What is that?” she asked, as if I now would spend time giving her a tutorial in the writing profession.

When I told her she could find out everything she needed to know about my services again on my web site, she seemed stunned, and I politely wished her luck and ended the call.

My colleague CM, a top copywriter, tells of similar experiences, where readers of his newsletter get angry that he won’t stop what he is doing to hear them read their headlines to him and get a quick opinion — all without paying him, of course.

CM is less calm about this than I am. “Don’t they $#%*&* realize my TIME is for my PAYING clients?!” CM complained to me.

A lot of our readers — people who get our free newsletters but do NOT buy or services OR our paid products — ask for our help, and are surprised and offended when we put limits on the free help we are willing to offer.

Would you ask a dentist you didn’t go to to examine your teeth for free? Would you ask a gas station where you DID buy gasoline to fix your engine for free?

Then why expect a writer to work for free?

Harlan Ellison says it best: “The writer should be paid.”

Do you agree? Disagree? Why?


This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 29th, 2009 at 10:35 am and is filed under Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

76 responses about “The 2 Inviolate Rules of Asking Strangers for Help”

  1. Dennis Kalian said:


    I think this is a problem in any business, and at times can be a fine line differentiating between someone who may be a potential client and someone who is “mooching” for free advice.

    Time is ones most important asset, we lose it and never recover it both in business and in life, end of story, choose wisely how you utilize it!

  2. Ken said:

    Yes…writers should be paid!

    I haven’t been doing this nearly as long as you, so I don’t know if people’s attitudes have always been this way…but I don’t like it.

  3. Bob Bly said:

    Ken: they have always been this way. Most people do it to vendors of all kinds — especially lawyers, consultants, and recognized subject matter experts — and not just writers.

  4. Ken Norkin - Freelance Copywriter said:

    The problem, of course, is that the people who need to learn these rules will never hear or read them, so they’ll continue to inflict themselves upon us and our limited time.

    I don’t get anywhere near as many of these useless calls as I used to when I had a bold listing under “marketing consultants” in the Yellow Pages (a well-meaning friend’s suggestion that seemed like a good idea at the time).

    Fortunately, I was on vacation when the most recent not-up-my-alley call came in. Some guy left me a voicemail last week asking me to call him back at any hour to discuss his book that was going to be the next blockbuster.

    I hope he hasn’t been sitting by the phone waiting for me to call.

  5. Bill Perry said:

    I’ll admit I’ve probably been guilty of doing this very thing a few times. From that POV, I can say that some people (at least I) never really thought it was as much of a burden. Until I realized that it is!

    Usually when I ask for advice from someone, I always tend to offer my help for that person in any way that I can. Not that I could get them coffee from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

    Stuff like, “Hey, if you have a ton of AdWords campaigns you don’t want to go through and set up, I’d be more than glad to help out, since you’ve helped me as much as you have.”

    Does that seem like a valid approach to take since I don’t have tons of cash lying around?

    I figure that if I (or anyone else) wants to extract value from the expert/guru, it doesn’t hurt to offer to do something in return to make the value go both ways.

  6. Bob Bly said:

    Bill: it wouldn’t work for me. When I need services, I buy them. I am not a fan of barter.

  7. Shirley George Frazier said:

    Wow, so I’m not the only one who receives these calls every day.

    I treat them in the exact manner that you’ve outlined, Bob, getting the same long-winded reply and stunned silence when I interrupt the sermon.

  8. Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D. said:


    This is definitely a problem that many business people experience, especially those of us who offer free newsletters.

    My way of handling these leeches is to assure the caller or sender that I can indeed research the answer or source they need as soon as they sign up for my consulting service. I give them the link and that does it. I know I won’t hear from them again.

  9. Karen Jackson said:


    Do you think that some people don’t consider writing “work” therefore think writers have all the time in the world? No one would dream of calling a doctor or lawyer and say “give me advice, now, for free.” But then again, the lady you describe, who knows?


  10. Bob Bly said:

    Shirley: your description is unerringly accurate — the “long sermon” and the “stunned silence.” Why do they think a busy professional would even be remotely interested in having them interrupt our day to tell us their life story? When I interrupt, even though it is to help them, I feel like I am being rude!

  11. Lou Wasser said:

    Time wasters pose a problem for all professionals, not just writers.

    In the investment business, our way of dealing with a time waster was to ask the pest for more money.

    Flora’s got the key.

  12. Pam Wilson said:

    Well, I’m afraid I did it once to you too but that was because you offered your email address at the end of one of your books for questions or comments. So I asked a question. Maybe you should stop doing that.

  13. Bob Bly said:

    Pam, where did I say here that I don’t want people to ask me questions? What I don’t want is people who insist on giving me endless detail I do not need to help them, or who won’t do what I ask them to do (e.g., call somebody, go look at a web site). Do either of those describe you?

  14. Phil dunn said:

    Since we’re in a comment thread here, I’m going to pull the social media card. A lot of people have been cheered on by the social networking/media trend, and some of them are not professionals.

    They think Twitter, email, Facebook, blogs, etc have eroded the barriers between the coveted and the climbers (the leaders and the up-and-coming). [Although the lady you describe sounds like she couldn’t tell an email address from a street address.]

    They want to engage because they’ve been encouraged to do so… but they’re not all that engaging themselves. Old news – a lot of people are not very polite, clued-in, aware… coherent. I’ve even read books (non fiction biz books) that encourage readers to “reach out” to their heroes. Are some of these people your sycophants?

  15. Bob Bly said:

    Phil: your comment makes sense, but this began LONG before we ever heard of social media. People have been doing this to me via phone and e-mail for many decades.

  16. Phil dunn said:

    It’s a difficult predicament, because many people consider advice, consulting and guidance as a free favor in certain situations. The “information sale” often begins with some complementary content. The crumb trail features freebies.

  17. Bob Bly said:

    There is an ample offering of complementary content on my site, starting here:

  18. Tera Arthur said:

    While inconsiderate people have always been out there, I believe the internet has encouraged them to believe content (even if it is very focused and specific to them) should be free.

    If you don’t want to end up in the same difficulties that newspapers are facing . . . just say NO!

    NO! to people who believe that what you do is so simplistic that you can just give them an off-the-cuff answer to what are complex questions.

    NO! to people who have so little respect for professionals of all stripes that they are unaware or unconcerned that they’re asking us to give it away.

    NO! to time/energy vampires of all sorts!

  19. Rich Gasaway said:

    I am in an industry where, for some reason, it is expected that free advice will be dispensed… and often is. I have set up a link on my website for coaching services. When someone asks me for free advice, I tend to listen to their issue (for the selfish reason I can usually gleen the material for a blog post or an article from their misery). Then I’ll give them about 10% of the advice they need for free… enough to get them interested in what I have to offer… then I refer them to my website to purchase coaching service. Sometimes they buy coaching time… sometimes they don’t. But they almost always give me new material to write about… and I get it for FREE!

    Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

  20. Jennifer said:

    I get the same thing. Usually in the form of a very general question through email, like “I want to quit my job and become a freelance writer! How should I do it?” Of course, this is a very complicated answer that entire books have been written about, including yours. I used to try to answer every time someone asked me this question. Now I just point them toward my blog, and once I have an ebook about the subject written up, I’ll point them towards that.

  21. Dominic said:

    There’s nothing wrong in helping other people. It’s just that you can’t survive by doing charity alone. That girl must be thankful because you entertained her though you’re so busy with other stuffs.

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Jennifer: I wrote most of my books, reports, and articles for that reason: to answer questions I am commonly asked. So when the answer to their question is in one of my publications, I email them a link where they can either read the article or order the book or report.

  23. Angel said:

    I believe there’s always a limit when you help other people, most especially if you’re a busy person. You can’t spend all of your time helping other people without getting any benefit from it. In some cases I’ve encountered, some people are asking for my help in exchange of an unreasonable amount of money. You know what their common reason is? They have a tight budget as of the moment. Imagine, they are asking for time and effort, but you need to adjust with their price. I don’t know, it’s quite an insult on my part coz I’m not giving away crap services.

  24. Suggested Reads for Today « Copy Confetti said:

    […] Bob Bly’s latest post shows just how every copywriter needs to think about how to handle the unwanted phone calls. Not the sales calls. The ones where people ask you for help you’re not there to give, and those who would use up the time you could be actually getting paid for. Also is an accurate take on how the writer’s profession is looked at differently than other professions. You can read it here… […]

  25. Mele said:

    In my former life, I practiced law. A mentor gave me some valuable advice: NEVER offer free consultations.

    He said, “even if they just pay you in hotdogs, get SOMETHING”. Here is where this pay-by-hot-dogs thing came from:

    A “potential client” walked in off the street claiming not to have the funds to pay for an hour consultation. My mentor said,”let’s walk down the street while we talk. You can buy me a hot dog.” The consult was as long as the time it took for them to walk to the street vendor, pay for the dog and walk back to the lawyer’s office.

    Rule of Thumb: If he (the lawyer) isn’t able to answer the guy’s questions in that time, he would let him know the “real” cost of a follow up session. I thought that was genius.

  26. Bob Bly said:

    Mele: that’s actually a great story and a great idea!

  27. Riya Aarini said:

    A lawyer approached a doctor during a party and asked him what he does with the problem of having people ask him for free advice. The doctor gave a sufficient reply, saying he sends them a bill.

    The next day, the lawyer opened his mailbox and found a bill from the doctor.

  28. Wintress Odom said:

    Well, here’s my story to add to the bunch:

    I always try to help out fledgling writers. Really, I do. If someone calls, I spend 15, 30, sometimes 60 minutes on the phone with them, actually trying to help them out. It makes me feel good; I figure it’s good karma; and I believe in paying it forward.

    So, get this: A few months ago a girl emails me and says that she wants “my advice on how to break into the ghostwriting world” etc. etc. (Of course people who want advice always email you with these broad questions that you can’t possibly ever answer without writing a book.)

    Anyway, I send her my standard “Call me direct at XXX-XXX-XXX, and I’ll be happy to help you in whatever way I can.”

    She actually writes back and tells me that I “obviously make more than she does,” so I should call her because she doesn’t want to pay for the long distance!

  29. Paul McVeigh said:

    Lentil as any thing opened a great resturaunt in Barkly street Footscray recently.
    Payment is not demanded, only that respect is paid by paying what you feel the meal is worth.
    It is an interesting concept and is a great success in these parts!

  30. Justin said:


    I see this all the time in graphic desgin. Some one will show me thier logo, ask me to critique it, then ask for recommendations on how to improve it. I usually tell them I’d be happy too, but were are getting into a consultation, which I charge for. Wirters and designers don’t ahve a tangible product like shoes or hammersmthat we can mark up and sell at a profit. The only thign we can charge for is our time and expertise.

  31. Customized Fat Loss said:

    Yeah, this has happened to me before too. If a friend asked me for help, I’d gladly do it for free. But a stranger? This is my job. And I have a fee.

  32. Toni Gautam said:

    Well, I’m afraid I did it once to you too but that was because you offered your email address at the end of one of your books for questions or comments. So I asked a question. Maybe you should stop doing that.

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