HOW TO ASK FOR HELP? Consider the 3Ms: Mindset, Motivations and Metaphors. Researcher Gretchen Barton of OZA shares her expertise, including insights from a recent Gates Foundation project on “Understanding Perceptions of Poverty” in America. Asking for help- be it expertise, time or money – isn’t easy, but you can learn to seek help with confidence. 


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Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki



Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much Gretchen for sharing your expertise on how to ask for help.

Gretchen Barton: My pleasure. I’m so excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

AW: Why don’t we start by you telling us about the Poverty in America project that you’ve been working on for the Gates Foundation.

GB: This has been a really fulfilling experience, to work with the Gates Foundation over the past year. One of the initiatives that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been looking to do is to understand what poverty is in America and how to fix it. They partnered with us in an exploration of the four major audiences in America that had been identified by some previous research. They’re called the Progressives, the Conflicted, the Strivers and the Bootstrappers. Basically that represents the prominent ways people think about poverty in America today. And they asked us to uncover their unconscious thinking about it. To figure out a way to speak to them – in a way that everyone could be sitting at a dinner table and everyone would understand what you were saying – and be willing to help.

AW: This was the ultimate question. How do you ask for help in a way that resonates with various targets, target markets,… So you guys came up with a segmentation scheme?

GB: Yeah, absolutely. That’s definitely a great way of putting it. I mean, we wanted to find a way of connecting deeply with people so that they would understand the problem, feel a sense of urgency about the problem, feel interested in doing something and give them a path forward to do it. So absolutely. It’s just really another way to ask for help, which is, I suppose is what good marketing really is, whether it’s like, “please buy my product”, or “please give me a raise boss,” or “please help me with this project.” It’s all really about reaching out into the ether and finding a way to connect deeply with somebody or please, in this case, please care about these people. And please do something about it.

AW: So whether it’s volunteering or opening up your checkbook. Right?

GB: right. Absolutely. I think it’s not easy, you know, and whenever you do a project like this, you reflect on your own experience with whatever the subject at hand is. So I was reflecting a little bit on taking my kids to daycare on my way to work. And having a double stroller. And being like, I’m gonna make it to work on time. And I’m going to get the kids to the daycare and everyone’s going to make it with all their limbs intact. And but I remember seeing this woman outside of McDonald’s and she was crying on the phone. I could tell from the conversation, or I surmised, that she was being evicted from her home. She was going through a really rough spot. I remember just going through this quick thinking of Oh, no, what do I do? I want to help. I want to help. How do I help? I’ve got two kids. I can’t help. What do I do? Give her money? I can’t. That’s not going to fix it. This is a bigger problem. Should I invite her to live in our house? That would be weird. My husband probably wouldn’t approve. I don’t know what to do. And then, I scurry on to daycare and feel terrible about it, you know. But I thought about her the rest of the day. And honestly, throughout the course of this project, I feel like in so many instances, we see a problem and we don’t know what to do. We feel deeply about it, but we just … our head explodes and we move on with our lives.

AW: Yeah, so it sounds as if maybe part of the research was looking at providing citizens, no matter which of the of the segments, the target markets that you outlined there, providing them with, as you said, a pathway or a sequence of things to think about and to do. What about on the other side? So how can institutions, companies, charities, effectively engage those people? I’m not sure how much detail you can share what the results or the findings were from this research. First of all, are they public?

GB: The Gates Foundation has a mission against gray data (which I didn’t know about before), which is like not having stuff just sit on the shelf, they really want to make sure that the research that they pay for, the work that they do, gets out and is used, and it’s very helpful. So we’re going to be sending that out probably in the next couple of months. You know, I think that corporations, NGOs, institutions all have a role to play. It’s funny that corporations have such an outsized influence on the way that we think about things that our life you know, whether it’s just like commercials or the products that we have or the programs they set in place or the influence that they have on how government works. They have fingerprints everywhere. For good and for bad. So engaging the corporate community is so important when thinking about how to tackle any kind of societal issue or social problem, right? It doesn’t just happen on an individual level. It happens on a systemic larger level through the programs that we have and also the words that we use. So it’s certainly something that we’re thinking about. I still remember the Nike Colin Kaepernick commercial that came out. The commercials certainly made me cry. And it was just like a wonderful statement for Black Lives Matter, which is so important.

AW: So coincidentally, that commercial was released right before I interviewed Jerry Zaltman for a Talk About Talk podcast focused on storytelling and I asked him – not thinking about that commercial or Nike at all, which brands he thinks are getting it right. And he said, Nike has nailed the hero archetype and the hero storyline and Colin Kaepernick, no matter what your politics are, he personifies that. So that was brilliant for them. And here we are, I know I get the shivers. Fast forward.

GB: That’s awesome.

AW: You mentioned a few things there. And I’m wondering, related back to how we ask for help. So you talked about the significance of corporations for profit, and specifically NGOs, and the influence that they have positive and negative on our culture and our society and everything we say think and do probably. So my question is, is that part of what you’re finding was when a message is broadly shared by corporations and other institutions, then is it encouraging people to help more when other institutions are acknowledging the issue?

GB: That’s a really good point. I mean, yes, more is more. I mean, I think that any kind of social issue requires help from everywhere. You know, as a kid, I think I used to think of things very much from a personal agency perspective. You know, it was like the starfish on the beach story. You know, the kid throwing the starfish back into the ocean and the guy coming up a little girl and being like, oh, what are you doing? She’s like, I’m gonna save this one here. I can’t save the world, I know, but this one I made a difference on. And like, that’s so great, right? Like our personal agency making a difference is so important. But my God, there are a lot of starfish out there on that beach, right? And we have to understand that society is a larger world, it can’t just be us. And it can’t just be our community. Those are all important. It’s also our institutions. It’s also our programs and our networks, right?

AW:  as a marketer. I’m thinking well, therefore, if we can ask for help from our networks to then also asked as you say, you’re broadening the message and more is more.

GB: Yeah, absolutely. None of us get anywhere alone. You know, you reflect on that when you’re eating dinner, right? There’s so many hands that touch that food that touch that table, the touch made sure that you have electricity and air conditioning and everything and the choices in your life, the education which led you to the job, which helps you pay for the food, which is why I just I feel so much gratitude. There’s so much help that is given to us on a daily basis that we don’t even ask for…

AW: Very good point. You know what , when I was preparing for this interview. I hadn’t thought of that. I’m very grateful. Of course, I’m grateful. But I hadn’t thought about the fact that in the context of how to ask for help, I’m being helped all the time. And I’m not even aware of it.

GB: Yeah, it really hits home, too. When you think about what’s happening in the world right now with the pandemic,

AW: A friend of mine on social media shared that she was really proud that her daughter had secured her first job, and she was a cashier at a grocery store, guess what she’s getting paid minimum wage, and now she’s putting her life on the line so that people can cash out with their groceries. That’s crazy, right?

GB: Yeah, it is crazy.

AW: So when I asked you about the topline results from the Poverty in America Gates Foundation project, one of the things that you said – I re-coded it or renamed it – to broadly share it across your network. So that’s thinking about it at a macro perspective, but I think also at a micro perspective, you said the words you use are really important.

GB: Yeah, yeah, they really are.  Words have such resonance with us. There’s the meaning that the person intends, but then there’s the meaning that a person co-creates based on their experience around that – based on the context of the emotion… For example, you can ask somebody to help and you can say, you know, I want you to go along on a journey with me, or let’s share some time together. Or I can say, hey, do me a favor, or Can I steal time from you? Right? Those are three different asks that imply very different relationships. And one of the things that’s been kind of shocking for me, as I’ve grown up, and then also, as I’ve raised kids, and as I’ve worked, is just you can just tweak the verb, the metaphor that you’re using, and create completely different meaning a completely different experience for somebody. So we do a lot of work at my firm in metaphors, and people describe how they feel in a profound deep level through metaphorical imagery in their conversations. And then we analyze it and we look at, okay, what are the verbs they’re using? How are they using it choosing the right words when we ask somebody for help? It’s really, really important. In this research, we ended up coming up with a story about navigation, right? Because it sort of spoke to all of the different understandings that people had about poverty. Progressive thinkers think a lot about the system the larger landscape or seascape as it were of poverty. People who are conflicted think about it in terms of like a fight-or-flight or freeze. They think about, oh god, this is happening. They see the system, but they also see their personal agency and then they don’t know what to do. People who are Strivers often look at it as a sense of connection and being disconnected from a larger thing. So they’re like a boat without a rudder, just floating aimlessly. And then Bootstrappers see it as like, if you just throw hard enough and kick hard enough out of the water, you’re going to make it and so it sort of paints this larger picture of a large ocean. Like think the Titanic, you know, where people are trying to get out of the water they’re trying to survive. It’s an existential threat poverty and you navigate it right? Life is a journey and you push through and you help each other through it. You don’t let people be consumed by the element. It’s just a different way of thinking about it.

AW: You’ve painted a very, very vivid image.

GB: It’s kind of a heartbreaking thing. When you think about it, the idea that people in poverty feel like they’re drowning. And there’s the sense of I’d like to help you, but I’m afraid that I do then I’m going to die drown myself, right? Just so much fear.

AW: It’s really powerful. So what would you do with that output? You have this, you said, it’s like navigating a seascape when you have the natural elements you talked about in the water and the drowning and the vessel and the oars and the other sailors you’re meeting along the way, all of those elements, right,

GB: right.

AW: So what do you do with that?

GB: We were talking about how the words that you use are really important, you know, when you think about stories. You want it to be a story that people can co-create off of, or they can vibe with, really, you want it to be a story where they can see themselves in it and go, aha, here I am, here’s where I fit. And you want to be a story of some urgency, right? You wanted to have some availability was like, Okay, here’s where I fit, and I can do something. And then you want to have them get the idea of advantage of how it will be good for them to do something. So in terms of how you use it, oftentimes, we’ll say use the images that people brought in use the words that they use to echo back that deep understanding of how they think about things and in profoundly deep way. And when you do that, you give people the tingles and move people along. So that’s one thing that our research partners are going to continue doing there. They’re going to look at the images that our participants brought in and they’re going to use that in the applications of messaging around poverty in the United States, and they’re going to use the words that participants use so that’s part of it, you know, they don’t need to dress up like sailors or, you know,…

AW: Right. But the spirit of it.

GB: Yeah, yes.

AW: Is there anything else in terms of words?

GB: I think just that there’s some words that can really activate action. And then there’s some words that implicitly say don’t do anything. I got this. Like, there’s a lot of talk in the United States about how the government has been hijacked. Let’s think about hijacking for a second, though, right? You’re in the plane, someone’s taken over the cockpit. What are your options? Right? You can go and jump in and like fly the plane yourself. But that’s like a life and death scenario. But there’s a lack of agency there that that idea presents. So what’s a better metaphor? Are we navigating through this? Let’s get our sailors together. We’re gonna steer the ship differently.

AW: Just those subtle tweaks, right?

GB: Yeah. It’s kind of a funny thing, being a mom now because I listen to the words that my kids say and they’re still learning the meaning of words. My daughter is just learning the word respect. What kind of meaning is she co-creating around that? What is she actually thinking? What does she want to communicate? It’s kind of a fun thing to do.

AW: Just you wait. Just wait till she becomes a teenager…

GB: Oh, God. It’s gonna be fun. Yeah.

AW: As you were speaking before, though, I was thinking this really does apply to parenting. And I mean, back to the context of asking for help. It’s like, come on, help me here. We have all these things we need to do in the house. You’re sitting there playing video games, and you can choose different metaphors, different words. Yeah. So that actually leads me nicely into my next question. And you can answer this in the context of the Gates Foundation research or other research that you’ve done. What about how to ask for help directly?

GB: One research project that we did with a non-profit had to do with financial security and insecurity. And one of the things that we found was that people who were economically insecure often had a great degree of shame. Right?

AW: That was gonna be my next question. Why are we ashamed to ask for help?

GB: I think we’re afraid of people seeing who we are. Maybe the vulnerability of it. You know, we talked about Jerry, Dr. Jerry Zaltman. I just love that man. And, and one of the reasons that I do is that he is so humble and great at asking questions, but I’ve been in a lot of meetings with Jerry, and you’ll hear him like, take a breath, and then he’ll go, I’m sorry, I may be daft or he’ll say something self-deprecating. But tell me about the meaning of the word. What does that mean to you? And he’ll slow the whole thing down. Then it’s like, well hang on a second. What are we actually talking about? It’s beautiful, because we’ve gotten the best insights out of just slowing down and examine examining our preconceived notions about what a thing is. And it really has taught me the lesson that like there is no shame and ever asking any question about anything of anyone.

AW: The amazing thing you know, you and I both went towards shame and ashamed and those are reasons why we don’t ask questions, but then there’s this. There’s this unicorn named Jerry, who actually we both put on a pedestal.

GB: Yeah.

AW: He’s so generous and he does ask questions, and he may not be asking for help for himself directly, but on behalf of others, he wouldn’t he wouldn’t think twice of asking for help. Right?

GB: And no, right. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, he’s freaking marvelous. And I think one of the things I also love about him, he always, always asked, How are you? No really, how are you? In our marketing firm, we were really hot into this idea of whole mind these days. And there’s this guy named Iain McGilchrist and he talks about how the brain works together and all the parts and it’s very interesting stuff. And it basically boils down to what is the experience a person has, how do you understand it? How do you connect to people, right?

AW: So I’m gonna I’m gonna shift gears here a little bit, but I’m in preparation for this interview, I read an article just in in a business magazine about how to ask for a raise or how to ask for a promotion. And it was very much about interviews and the work environment, how to ask for help, how do you ask for help? Maybe if you are charged with managing or leading a task force and you know that you’re going to need extra bodies on your team? How do you ask people to give that of themselves? Was there any insights from the research that you’ve done that might help managers at work who need help?

GB: In our research, we found time and time again, that people long for connection. I mean, it goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s validated. And when people have an opportunity to connect with others, and go alongside someone in their journey, you found that it’s a deeply meaningful experience. So I think for managers who are looking for help or are looking to get support, I think understanding that when you’re on that Trapeze and you’re swinging and you’re reaching out your hand and you’re hoping someone’s there, there are tons of people who are just waiting to be picked. People love to help if you can give them a path forward and say this is what I need. Specifically, people are willing to stand up and do the right thing, you know, it can be scary to put yourself out there.

AW: But you know what, what you just said is actually very empowering. People love to help and we all have scarce resources. Time, whatever is being asked of us, is probably a scarce commodity. But I love also how you said if you can resonate somehow with the person’s motivations in terms of connection and meaning. So you could go a level up from what you’re asking and say, you know, I am asking for five hours a week. And here’s what you’re going to get in return. You’re going to get to know people in other departments which can only help you and you’re also going to understand whatever so you’re providing them with connection and meaning.

GB: Yes, yes. And growth possibly too. Right. I mean, people have so many different motivations coming into work, you want to paycheck but you know, you also want to grow, you want to be a star, maybe, which I mean, those are all good things. I think as a good manager, you look for the people that you… they have emotional needs and you’re looking to understand, okay, what’s driving them? What do they really want? And maybe it’s all of the above, you know, I’ll take a gold sticker, and, a raise and be better ,and to be connected, you know all of those things.

AW: Yeah. And even the people that you’re asking for money for a charity, right? This is the meaning. This is the impact that you’re providing. Right? And then they can learn and help contribute to society.

GB: Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point, Andrea, too. I mean, the specificity is really key to sort of say like, this is exactly what this thing will do. Your energy input here will do this good thing and you can see it here and you can see the outcome of it. One of our directors– James Forr– he just posted this cool article about how people will give in tip jars. And there are certain ways that you can elicit more tips from people. There’s all sorts of behavioral tricks, you can look them up a lot. A lot of them come from Cornell University, and they’re very, very good. But people love to express who they are, you know, so if you have a tip jar, for example that says tip here, if you like this sports team versus that’s team, you know, something that like evokes emotion… It really is good finding like where people vibe emotionally, you know, can really spur people on…

AW: that reminds me related to identity. So I moderated a brainstorming session at a hospital foundation where we were brainstorming the motivations for people to give money, and one of them that came up was identity. And so you know, a lot of people they want to see their name on an MRI machine or on a building right? or the entrance to the hospital. That’s fair game. They’re still helping, right?

GB: So two things. One, there’s a company called Tip Jar. They do a lot of work in the nonprofit space. One of their things is they want people to get that immediate feedback loop of Yes, you tipped and make it easy reduce friction to tip. So they have this thing where you take your credit card and you dip it and then it goes boing and it lights up it flashes so everybody knows that you tipped. Yay! And also you don’t have any change? No problem. And it’s $1 or $20, or whatever they set it for. So you just you don’t have to think you make it very easy for people. I think it’s so, so smart.

AW: So the recognition is the word there, right?So identity and recognition are a little bit different. You were talking about having different identities and do, you know, vote this way or this way? That’s identity, and then there’s recognition, public recognition.

GB: That’s right. That’s right. Well, also reducing friction, I think is a really interesting thing. Yeah.

AW: So if you don’t mind, I’m gonna shift gears before we get to the five rapid fire questions. But when you and I were talking offline, we said we’re both really interested in hostage negotiation. I’m wondering if there are any insights about hostage negotiations in terms of what you’ve learned in this research and how to ask for help?

GB: Yeah, there’s this guy named Chris Voss, and I’m just absolutely obsessed. I think that his work is so fascinating. He was a very successful hostage negotiator. He talks a lot about negotiation and the idea is right, if you can save a person from a life and death scenario, then it’s a win. You know, when you negotiate with a hostage taker, you’re not going to the hostage taker and saying, “You’re a terrible person, let the person go.” Like no, what you do is you make friends with the hostage taker, you say, gosh, this is a messed up situation. How do we together partner in this messed up situation to figure out together how to make this thing better? What are our shared goals? What’s our vision together? Let’s craft this make a better world together. And I think about that a lot when it comes to how to ask for help. It’s about saying, like, however hot mess of a situation it is right? You can always go and say, this is a situation that we’re in, how can we make this thing better together? And when it comes to poverty, people have a lot of guilt and they have a lot of shame and they have a lot of blame, whether it’s appropriate or not to feel those things. So if we all just sort of step aside as a society and say, hey, let’s look at this thing together. Not worried about fingerpointing, that opens up the possibility for progress, we’re going to be able to figure something out together and I thought it was such a brilliant insight.

AW: I didn’t I didn’t know where you were headed with that! But back to the vessel and the navigation metaphor. We’re in this boat together. How are we going to get to shore? There’s a storm. Let’s figure it out.

GB: Yeah, absolutely. We all can we all can take care of each other and help each other out.

AW: Again, the power of the metaphor. Okay, are you ready for the five rapid fire questions?

GB: I hope so.

AW: Okay, first question. What are your pet peeves?

GB: Jargon? I hate the word utility. Is that bad? Utilize. I don’t tell people this. So here we are, but it drives me crazy.

AW: Like what?

GB: people will say oh, I’m going to utilize my pen to write my name. Like my God, why don’t you just say use?!?  please.

AW: So I have to tell you this I I have called people on that for years and I gave up I stopped calling people on it.

GB: Why make things more complicated than they are? Say it simply. Sai it clearly.

AW: Yeah, question number two, what type of learner are you?

GB: So I think that I am a little bit of everything. Visual. Yes, I picture things, but I often like will roll things around in my head and I will feel them. I sort of just have my own experience in my head of things and I really do believe in experiencing everything comprehensively.

AW: Number three, introvert or extrovert?

GB: I’m actually an introvert, but people don’t think that’s true at my workplace. I’ve just practice a lot. I don’t know. It’s just like skydiving. No, you jump up the hatch and you just don’t look back.

AW: Okay, question number four. Communication preference for personal conversations?

GB: Yeah, I love FaceTime. I think that I like being able to see someone. You can understand so much more than text messages or phone calls.

AW: Okay, last question. Is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you find yourself recommending the most?

GB: I have to tell you, we always have Fresh Air going from NPR all the time. I love the stories that Terry tells and the people that she has on.

AW: and just her.

GB: Just her. I mean, so good, so good.

AW: And also genuinely intellectually curious. Right?

GB: Yeah. Which I think is so important these days, especially.

AW: Yeah, I don’t think you quite said this. But you almost said it. It’s now more than ever. I keep hearing that now more than ever.

GB: Now more than ever. We understand.

AW:  This has been great. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your expertise. Gretchen. Thanks for doing this… I know you’ve got a little one and Oh!

GB: Hi, this is Andrea. Can you say Andrea? You never went to sleep …

AW: Oh, well, that means you’re gonna go to bed early, right? Say yes.  🙂

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