Asking Strangers for Help on the Internet

I get a fair number of unsolicited emails from people looking for advice, feedback, or assistance with their work. This isn’t unique or even particularly special – I think it’s true for every quasi-public figure in permaculture. Like most people, I often don’t have as much time as I would like to respond to emails. It might take me a while respond at all – though I will do my best to do so.

The suggestions below aren’t intended to discourage people from reaching out. I’m deeply grateful for the vast majority of contacts I make through this site. I do want to offer some practical suggestions for contacting anyone for help or advice – especially but not only strangers on the internet.

I find I’m much more motivated to respond when it seems like the questioner appreciates my time. On the other hand, when they seem to feel entitled to my time, it’s very hard to work up the motivation to respond at all. I’m pretty sure this is true for most people.

So here are some strategies you can employ to maximize your chances of getting a substantive response from me or anybody. These suggestions  emerge out of my own (extensive!) experience of emailing very busy people: academics, farmers, and others. So, when you’re asking someone for advice or help:

  1. Acknowledge that they probably have a very full plate already.
  2. Appreciate that you are asking a stranger to share finite time and energy with you – likely without compensation.
  3. Spend time crafting a specific question (or questions).
  4. Spend time putting your question(s) in a succinct message.

And more broadly, it may be useful to reflect on the fact that there are – thank goodness – many passionately curious people brimming with questions, and 1000s of of projects very worthy of time and support. At the same time, there are innumerable boring and persistent details of life demanding the attention of those people who you are hoping will answer your questions and support your project. So please doggedly pursue your answers and resources – and use a little strategic diplomacy. It will serve you well.

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