As a freelancer, I wear different hats depending on the job and the client. Whether I am a Producer, DP or Event Photographer, a big part of my job is knowing how to ask for and get what I need to make the job work for my client.

I began my career in human services. As with most jobs in that field, budgets are tight and one has to learn how to get things done with little or no budget, to know when something justifies additional expenditures and, in that case, how to ask for it with the best chance of success.

When I began, I was the proverbial bull in the china shop, cajoling my bosses and holding court on all of the righteous good our project would accomplish. As you might imagine, I was not terribly successful. In fact, I sucked … a lot.

I had one very serious roadblock. I thought salesmanship was beneath me.

Thankfully, over beers at a conference, I expressed my frustration to another attendee with a bit more experience and a much better track record. I still remember the look he gave me when I said salesmanship should not be required in human services. It was part pity and part anger, but he looked me straight in the eye and said “Son, salesmanship is required in any and all human endeavors.

We tussled verbally until he asked me what I would do if I had the cure for cancer, but it cost $500,000 to produce. Would I give it away and go broke making it? Or, would I go back through my supply chain and convince my vendors to find ways to make it cheaper?

I said, “Well, I’d obviously work the supply chain and get them to see how it served them to find cheaper ways of making it.

He replied, “Well friend, you’d be selling.

Mind blown.

The principle is pretty simple. Help the other party see the value in your endeavor. Sometimes, that is monetary. Other times, it is social good. Still other times, it is just plain fun. Regardless, the “ask” begins with what Scott Bourne calls tuning in Radio Station WIFM … “What’s In It For Me?”

This need not be base and manipulative. If it is, the opportunity for failure is, in fact, far greater. Rather, the “art of the ask” begins with listening.

Most of the time, listening is interpersonal, in the form of one on one conversations where one’s job is to start the conversation and then be quiet and listen, only asking questions which further clarify the other party’s needs. Only when one fully realizes the needs of the other party, does the ask occur and then, only in a way that is transparent when presenting the value proposition.

“Listening” can also take the form of pre-meeting research. If one plans to pitch a potential client on one’s services, the way to start is researching that client to find out what they need and if one’s services fill that need. Once in the one on one meeting with the potential client, the applicable research presents one as knowledgeable, thoughtful and, most importantly, invested in the potential client’s success.

I wish I could say that I became a master of “the art of the ask” after having my mind blown all those years ago. Sadly, it took me a while to embrace the idea that selling is an intrinsic part of human interaction.

But, once I embraced this idea as fundamental, every pitch I made got a little better and so did my track record. I don’t close every deal. No one does because not everyone is a fit for every project. That is just part of the process.

Now, I just described the a skill that I learned long before I entered the creative field as a professional. Here are some examples of how understanding “the art of the ask” serves me today.

  • By listening to one client’s sponsors, I learned that no other show in the industry actually put demo products in the hands of consumers. Instead, they gave it all away as prize support. Their research said “hands on” demos drove sales. We did exactly that, not just for that single sponsor, but for every sponsor. Within a year, that show had sponsor support previously unheard of for a show of its size.
  • When scouting locations for a client last year, I had long list of locations, a tight budget and one particularly tough “get” … an airport. Working with the client, I determined what I could offer the locations in the way of non-monetary compensation and promotional value. Before long, we had almost every location requested, including the airport.
  • When talking with clients on tight budgets, I listen for things they need which, though little to me, are big to them. And, I deliver them every time. Using this approach, I have had clients describe me as “a problem solver, not a problem, like that other guy” when referring me to new clients.

All of this comes from learning to listen as the first step in “the ask”. I did not learn this soft skill working as a creative, I learned it in an entirely different field.