The Art of Asking For and Giving Advice

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Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson is an award-winning storyteller, author, and comedian who teaches you how to harness the power of your story to connect, engage, and get results. In this blog, Kelly focuses on the business of professional speaking. Kelly’s post day is Friday. If you aren't sure how to comment on this story, click here.

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Hi, you don’t know me, but I would love just a minute of your time.

Hello, I know you’re busy, but I am wondering if I can take you to lunch and pick your brain.

I found your article online and I would love it if you could give me some advice on how to write my life story.

You are so inspiring, I just wanted to reach out and share my story and get your help on how to get started doing what you do.

I get questions like this almost every day, from hundreds of dreamers out there who need advice.  As a motivational speaker, I am a big believer in giving back and reaching out to help others. We are stronger when we link arms and leverage our gifts and talents.  But at the same time, answering these emails has become a full time job in my world – a job I simply don’t have time to do. So I’m trying to find the balance between helping people, and setting boundaries on my time so I can get my work done and spend time with my family.

Today’s post is going to address both sides of the coin – the advice giver and the advice asker. Hopefully we are always falling in BOTH camps. First, let’s address the advice GIVER.

Setting Boundaries as an Advice GIVER

Since I tend to ramble (pause for you to gasp in surprise), let me just list my points without a lot of added text.

  1. Giving advice is a nice thing to do. The world is a better place if we help others reach their dreams. Let’s not become successful and forget where we came from. Let’s help, not because we feel obligated, but just because we can.  It’s called serving. And it’s a cool thing to do.
  2. You don’t have to help everybody. You can’t. You have a business to run and a family to love – nobody asked you to be a full time charity service. Let go of this idea that you can help everybody who asks.
  3. Put your advice in print.  If you’re like me, you get people asking the same questions over and over. Create a document that answers these frequently asked questions.  You can send them the PDF, or cut and paste the information into an email. They will think you hung the moon.
  4. Refer them to places where you have already talked about this. I like to refer people to this blog. I have written every week for YEARS on the subject of professional speaking.  It took a lot of time and energy to write every week.  Why should I repeat that when I can send you here for FREE?
  5. Set boundaries on your advice giving sessions. If you decide to speak in person or on the phone, set a time limit and stick to it.  You might decide, like I have, that meeting in person is just too straining on your schedule. So don’t. You get to set the boundaries and they should respect them. Some people I know will say, “I offer the first hour for free. After that it is considered coaching.”
  6. Make your advice limited. You don’t have to do the work for that person. Just tell them what they need to know. Doing it is their responsibility.
  7. Don’t be afraid to barter. Just because they may be “new” at what you do, they aren’t new at other things. Everybody has talents and gifts. Don’t be afraid to ask that you barter your knowledge.  Many advice takers appreciate the opportunity to return the favor and give back.  You can get some cool perks by bartering with people. Sometimes even better than money.
  8. Try not to sell them on something else. This is just my own personal opinion.  I try not to “upsell” anybody coming to me for advice. Somehow it waters down the gift I am giving them and makes it seem like a sales pitch – even though they came to me in the first place.  I have a policy, “Help first. Sell later.” And it seems to work really well.  When I help them, they get to see how I work, and how valuable my information is or isn’t.  If they want to work with me more, on a professional basis, they will know, and they will reach out to me when they’re ready.

Many people ask me how I built my coaching business. While it sounds strange, I built my coaching business on years of helping people for free. Yes, that was my business model – to build a community of people who are familiar with my work. Word of mouth is the best generator of business that there is.  My coaching business runs entirely on word of mouth and a foundation of people who have received my help over the years for free. They have become my biggest fans. So I have built it into my business model – help first, sell later.  Yes, it adds a lot of extra work and energy.  Yes, I deserve to be paid for my time.  But I truly believe that my business is MORE successful because it is built on helping others.  The secret is to set boundaries so that you are working smart instead of just working hard.

The Art of ASKING for Advice

At every stage of our dream, we are vulnerable, and can benefit from the advice of those who have accomplished what we want to accomplish. Asking for advice is a GOOD thing. I am always asking others for advice.  And now that I have been on the other side, as an advice giver, to such a large degree, I have the insight from both perspectives. So let’s take a look at some ways we can ask for advice.

  1. You don’t deserve free advice. Yes, I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. You call it free advice, but it’s anything but free.  The advice giver is sharing what it took her YEARS to learn – by experience – the hard way. Time is money. When someone gives you their time, that is costing them money. It is costing them time away from their business. It is costing them time away from their family and their priorities.  You see it as “just a minute” or a “quick question” or “a leisurely lunch.”  It is more than that.  So when you ask someone for their time, you need to understand and respect it for the gift it is.  You would never go out into this world expecting gifts from strangers. Nobody walks into a room on their birthday, and asks who bought them a present. That’s rude. And we all know that presents aren’t something we expect. They are gifts. You need to see advice in the same way. Nobody owes you their time.
  2. Check and see if the person you are asking advice from has already answered this question.  Take the time to see if the person you are reaching out to has a blog, a series of articles, frequently asked questions, etc.  Sometimes those questions have already been answered, and you shouldn’t expect to work outside this system.
  3. Reach out online, not with a phone call.  Find the least intrusive path for reaching out. Phone calls are intrusive. An email, or a message on social media, is much more polite. This allows the advice giver to respond on their terms.
  4. Understand that you are one of hundreds contacting that person.  At least in my case. When we reach out for advice, we tend to think we’re the only one contacting them that day. We’re not. We are one of hundreds lobbying for their time. Don’t forget that.
  5. Don’t expect an answer.  Don’t expect that they should get back to you at all.  They don’t owe you a response. You reached out. If they don’t reach back, move on – with no hard feelings. Don’t take it personally either. Just respect it.
  6. Don’t follow up.  Don’t call them or email them again asking if you got their message. Don’t sent a book and then call them a week later to see if they read it.  This is not a sales call. You don’t follow up. If they don’t answer, you have your answer. Move on.
  7. Ask them what works best for them. You don’t set the terms, they do. Ask them the easiest way for them to give advice. A phone call may not work for them. Meeting for lunch may not work for them.  They are giving you a gift, let them determine what gift they want to give you.
  8. Show your appreciation for their advice. Find a way to return the favor – to give back to them. Show your gratitude. If all you have are words, then at least express your gratitude. An email, a card, a text. There is nothing worse than helping someone who acts like we owe them. Yuck. When I give advice, it feels so good to know that it is appreciated.
  9. Don’t feel bad or obligated when someone helps you.  We didn’t have to give you a gift. Don’t feel bad when someone helps you. We don’t do anything we don’t want to do. If I help you it’s because I WANT to. Receive the gift with graciousness.
  10. Pay it forward.  Make sure that you are doing for others what you expect them to be doing for you.  I don’t care what stage you’re in, you should be giving as much as you are taking. If you don’t know what you have to offer, then ask.  Whenever someone gives me free advice,  I try to respond by saying, “Please let me know how I can return the favor. If there is something I can do for you, please ask.”  Sometimes I will tell them the things I am good at, to give them ideas of how we can barter knowledge.


  • Karen Alaniz

    This is a great article! Seriously. I’ve been on both sides of it. My mentor in writing is a NY Times bestselling author many times over. She’s amazing! But something struck me that she said to someone else when she introduced me. She said, ‘I’ve given the same advice to many, many writers. Karen is the only one who actually followed through.”

    That’s how she became my mentor. When I asked for advice, I meant it. I wanted to know what to do and wasn’t looking for a quick and easy answer. One of her pieces of advice was to “run, don’t walk…to Toastmasters.” I did. It was way out of my comfort zone. It wasn’t easy. But I did it!

    When my book came out, the most common question was how to get published. I spent years researching this, and it would take a long time to explain to someone. What I soon discovered though is that most people who asked that hadn’t finished writing their book. Many hadn’t even started. So, my biggest piece of advice became, “Write the book that’s inside you. Worry about publishing when it’s done.”

    Anyway – thanks for the great post. Really thought-provoking and helpful. ~Karen