We launched a crowdfunding campaign for our project yesterday-we’re writing countless letters to friends, family, colleagues and the such, so I figured this would be the very best time to talk about the most elusive element of the entertainment industry: the ASK. This is where it all begins.
Yet no one likes to ask. As a child, I can remember how difficult it was for me to ask for things. I would constantly ask my father for things that he would never give me, so I always felt disappointed. I remember asking a boy to come to my party and how much my cheeks burned as I did it. He never showed. I remember with astonishing detail how I used to ask my friend for a ride home from school because she had a car and I didn’t. I only lived 1-2 miles from school but it was a long way with a heavy book-bag. She later told me that she couldn’t because her parents told her that by asking I was taking advantage of her. I never forgot that, and I am sure that it settled somewhere deep into my psyche and has contributed to my anxiety about asking even today.
But I also remember the things I didn’t ask for that I did get. The girl from my junior class (I was a 9th grader) who offered to drive me home and then pick me up extra early in the mornings. The bus driver who gave me a candy bar every time he saw me when I was riding the bus home. The admissions officer who bought me a ticket so I could visit my prospective college because my mom couldn’t afford to buy it. Even the local bag company that offered to monogram my first computer bag for free just because. I’ll never know why these people shared these things with me, but I’ll never forget them. These moments made my heart leap as if superman himself had swooped down and saved me from a fall. There’s something magical that happens when someone gives unasked of themselves, and we wish we could replicate that magic. But it’s almost impossible to replicate these moments because what was so special about them is that we were expecting nothing and given something. Those are the best asks. It sounds crazy but the best asks come out of not asking at all. The best asks are about what you have to OFFER.
Relationships are all about negotiation and compromise. Someone gives and someone takes; sometimes there’s a balance; most of the time there’s not. An ask is a negotiation and in a relationship people are always asking for things or expecting things. In these relationships someone has to develop the skill of how to get what they want. There are many ways to do this of course: begging, pleading, demanding, cajoling, manipulating… and then there is offering. There is something very powerful about understanding the position of the offer in an ask. It means there is the potential for balance.
When you ask for something, there is always a negotiation taking place whether you know it or not. It is taking place between the words and pauses, between the movements and events, the body scents and non verbal cues. What’s being negotiated is what is being gained and what is being lost. People really need to be conscious of this in any relationship. But an offer changes things. An offer is an invitation, an openness to share, to put things on the table without expectation. An offer leaves room for a different kind of negotiation to take place, one in which the asker is open to whatever the offer can provide. It lays out the room for the possibilities to be infinite. It’s fun.
But the asks that we, as artists, do are infrequently this. We often ask for one thing and are closed to any other option. It limits the possibility for negotiation and compromise, and even creativity. It limits the kind of relationship that can take place between the asker and the contributor. It halts the relationship that could develop. When it gets down to it, this business and really any business is ALWAYS a business of relationships. How you relate to other people is the KEY to your success.
I graduated with an English degree, and I still laugh at these people who tell me that an English degree is a wasted degree. Studying literature and language is studying relationships and how people communicate with each other. This is THE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL in this business and EVERY BUSINESS. Whether you are relating to someone in writing or in person, by phone, fax, or email (and now skype), if you don’t know how to develop relationships with people, you’re about to become roadkill on the industry highway. And, in case I didn’t know it, I had top indie producer Cassian Elwes at the last Changing Images in America Breakfast remind me: this is a business of relationships. If you need to ask for something, you must first relate. (Amanda Palmer does this very well in a TedTalk on “the ask”)
But I know artists are terrified of asking. So how can you relate to someone when you’re afraid? I get it. I have been there. Asking for something you really want is horrifying, and especially so for any artist because potential rejection is never a rejection of the art, it’s a rejection of the person. An artist’s work is her soul. So this is why most artists never really learn how to ask for help, funding, assistance or whatever. They decide one of two options: to simply not ask, not take the risk or the alternative to beg. But when you beg, you don’t have anything to negotiate or offer. You don’t actually feel that you have anything to give. You are asking for pity. So guess what: that’s exactly what you get.
This is what artists need to do to change their approach. Stop begging and start offering. You and your art are valuable. YOU are the opportunity. YOU are the product. It is their privilege to work with you. So change your body language from ‘please do me a favor,’ to ‘no problem, next.’ I had a friend who told me to consider every rejection not as negative, but as positive: she told me to think of it as protection. It’s a good point. You don’t ever want to work with someone who doesn’t value you. I don’t care who your agent or manager is, if they are not valuing you now, you need to GET OUT because they never will. So here are my top tips for making a good ask. These are specifically for writing a good ask letter, but they also apply to any in-person ask as well.
1. The First Rule of the Ask is to know what you are asking for and ask for it. There is nothing worse than receiving a letter and not knowing what exactly you’re supposed to do with it. I have been on the receiving end of that and it is frustrating especially if you are someone who actually wants to help. If someone don’t really care, that’s a simpler decision-your letter just goes in the trash. The writer who is in not being clear about what he wants is unintentionally giving that responsibility to the reader who must now figure it out. That’s work. Even if you’re not sure what you want exactly, give a suggestion of what you want and be specific about what you need and why. The reader then has a place to begin, they have an idea. If they want to offer more (or less) they can and that will make them feel much more of a benefactor by giving more than they were ask.
2. Understand you are not the only one Asking. This is the biggest failing of most ask letters. If you’re writing to someone who is a funder and asking them to give you money, know that there are hundreds and possibly thousands of other people asking for the same thing. You must make your letter standout. YOU must stand out. What can you say that is different than all the other letters? A personal connection can help or asking for something they might not expect but can still give. For example an actor who always plays a supporting character might jump at a lead. If there is a topic of interest to them, something they want to support, demonstrate how by funding you, they can realistic affect that cause in a significant way.
3. Be aware of how you present Yourself. Who are you and why should they support you or want to work with you? Sell yourself. Describe yourself as someone of integrity, success, determination professionalism. In this industry in particular demonstrating creativity can go a long way. If you are a filmmaker, they want to know what you have created. If you have worked in the business as an assistant, demonstrate that you know how to play the big boys game. If you have relationships, mention them. Name dropping can be a useful tool if used sincerely and with research. Random overuse will get you banned.
4. Give them a reason to Care. What’s in it for them? What are you offering them that they might want? This is the single most important tip in writing an ask. In the first 3 lines you need to explain why you are writing and why reading this letter might be relevant to them. It sounds simple but most people don’t do an effective job of this. If you are writing talent, get to the story, get to who you are, and get to how the actor (and the agent) may benefit. People often think it’s about the money but that oversimplifies charity and giving. People give and help others for lots of reasons-maybe they want to feel good about themselves, maybe they feel guilty that they haven’t done more, maybe for reasons you don’t know they’re willing to take a risk. For actors, sometimes a role that can catapult them back into the main sphere can be decisive. Maybe it’s other talent.
5. Be prepared to Follow-up. This is where most people get left behind. If you give up after sending only one letter or making one call, did you really want it? Professional people have to follow-up so why wouldn’t you? Most people in the industry are busy. Dealing with contracts, looking for their next gig, paying bills, trying not to get fired, and then there’s all that stuff called life that happens. I’m not a high ranking exec and I’m busy so I can just imagine how busy they must be if they have 50 or 100 projects or clients. You should follow-up at least 2-3 times. After that, you have to use your best judgment. Persistence can be good thing until it borders on harassment. Another thing people forget is the effectiveness of business cards. Always take as many as you can get and follow-up with everyone you meet. They might be small peas now but after working in the business for years I can tell you, small people can get big overnight. Never discount anyone.