Every day, a number of people ask me for help. Some are writers who want to land a book deal. Others are PR professionals who want me to write about their clients. Others want advice about launching a business. Or about fitness. Or how to lose weight.

And many people, even though I don't know them at all, want me to connect them with someone I do know.

Almost all of those emails -- and face-to-face requests -- follow the same basic format.

First they compliment me. Then they explain why they don't just need but actually deserve my help. Then comes the "ask," a comprehensive description of exactly what I should do for them. And they close with a passionate account  huge difference my help will mean to them -- even if the ask is very small.

For fun, I ran a word count on the last 20 of those emails. The average length was 463 words.

Guess how many I responded to.

If you want help, here's a better formula. Just start with four simple words.

"Can you help me?"

Why?

We're adults. We're smart, experienced, and savvy. We've accomplished things. We've earned our places in your world.

So when we ask for help, we also tend to unconsciously add image enhancers. For example, if I need help with a presentation I might go to someone and say:

"I'm giving the keynote at (insert huge conference name here) next week and my slides need some formatting tweaks."

What did I do wrong?

The words I chose instantly framed and signaled my importance and ensured my ego was protected. Okay, I may need a little assistance with a Prezi layout, but still: I'm the one doing the keynote. I'm the big dog in this particular hunt.

Plus I didn't really ask for help. I stated a request. (When you're in charge and accustomed to directing others, turning requests into directives is a really easy habit to fall into.)

Here's a better way.

When you need help -- no matter the kind of help you need, or the person you need it from -- take the bass out of your voice, the stiffness out of your spine, and the captain out of your industry and just say, with sincerity and humility:

"Can you help me?"

You're much likely to get back a "What do you need?" or "I can try" or "Sure." 

Few people, especially face-to-face, will ever say "no," even a stranger. Plus, "Can you help me?" speaks powerfully to our instinctive desire to be of service to other people. "Can you help me?" makes you vulnerable, which also speaks powerfully to our instinctive desire to help other people.

Then, even though an expert like Tim Ferriss says you should be extremely specific, don't frame your request. Don't imply that you're above the other person. Don't make your request too specific. And don't say exactly what you need.

Instead, say what you can't do.

Instead of saying, "I need to add a few graphic elements to a presentation, say, "I'm awful at Prezi and a few of my slides look terrible."

Instead of saying, "We need to stop working on that order and put everyone on this one," say "We absolutely have to finish this project by Friday and I have no idea how to make that happen."

Instead of saying, "I'm looking for Bleeker Street," say, "I'm lost and I can't find my hotel."

Ask for help that way and critical things happen:

1. You show respect.

Without actually saying it, you've said, "You know more than I do." You've said, "You can do what I can't." You've said, "You have experience (or talent or knowledge) that I don't have."

You've said, "I respect you."

2. You show trust.

You're vulnerable. You admitted to a weakness.And you've shown the other person that you trust them with that knowledge.

You've said, "I trust you."

3. You show you're willing to listen.

Instead of saying exactly how the other person should help you, you give them the freedom to decide.

You've said, "You don't have to tell me what you think I want to hear; tell me what you think I should do." 

By showing you respect and trust other people and by giving them the latitude to freely share their expertise or knowledge, you don't just get the help you think you want.

You may also get the help you really need.

And the person you ask for help also gets something valuable. They feel respected. They feel trusted. They get to offer the kind of advice or assistance or connections they know will really help you.

Are you guaranteed to get help if you ask for it that way? Of course not.

But you're a lot more likely to -- and are a lot more likely to spark a connection, and then a relationship, that could someday benefit you both.

Can't beat that.

Published on: Sep 27, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.