Time and again I have confirmed my assumptions that asking kindly generally grants one access to opportunities normally beyond their reach. Stating my intentions clearly, and declaring myself a passionate and self-directed person, I have found repeatedly that people are willing to help out if the request is framed appropriately.
An example: A few years ago – after reading this book – my sister and I decided that we needed to go to the Queen Charlotte Islands. But after completing preliminary research we found that many areas of the islands we would want to visit – UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hotsprings Island, Tanu, Skedans and a host of other former village sites – were all but inaccessable without boats (either kayaks or greater, and a good deal more ocean knowledge than either of us possessed). Signing up for guided expeditions could cost thousands of dollars (as would the required kayak-purchases and requisite certifications), and yet we remained undeterred. I spent an afternoon on Google finding the email addresses of nearly every guiding outfit operating in the islands, and sent them all this email with our resumes attached:
I have sent you this email in inquiry of volunteer positions with your expedition(s) this summer. Based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, my sister – Melissa, 22 – and I – Bryan, 26 – plan to spend much of August in Haida Gwaii, and would be interested in exploring with you if such an opportunity might exist. I have attached our resumes and enclose these words of introduction on our behalf in the hope that they might deem us worthy additions to your group’s experience in the Charlottes.
At present I am a teacher in the Coquitlam School District (#43), where in my first year I am teaching grade four (social studies and art), as well as music, to students grades kindergarten to five. My journey toward education in this present capacity was born out of experience in the outdoors of the American South, volunteering and then working at a Boy Scouts of America summer camp in the Arkansan Ozark Mountains. For two summers I served as certified aquatics director, overseeing activities in our reservation’s pool complex and at the lakefront; my duties included managing a staff of ten and teaching canoeing, sailing and rowing, as well as swimming and lifesaving skills to approximately thousand Scouts in three years.
During my first year as aquatics director at the Gus Blass Scout Reservation (now Camp Rockefeller), Melissa joined our staff as a volunteer assistant director. A long-certified lifeguard in British Columbia, my sister’s experience in education stems from her work as a diving coach with our local swim club. At Simon Fraser University, she has studied Biology and will complete her degree this spring. Melissa’s focus has been marine biology and botany, which she supplemented with a 2006 summer semester at Vancouver Island’s Bamfield Marine Sciences Research Center. A recent interest has been sparked in her study of ethnobotany, and the relationship between our province’s first peoples and its indigenous plants, specifically traditional ecological knowledge.
At the end of our term at the summer camp, Melissa and I flew to Toronto and began a cross-country road trip that has set the tone for our summer activities since. We have enjoyed outdoor experiences that have led us to our present stations, and will inevitably be headed to the Queen Charlotte’s this summer in the vein of past August on the Sunshine Coast’s Nelson Island and in the forests of the island’s west coast. (To view the exploits of these adventures, see the various albums of this Flickr page: www.flickr.com/photos/bryanjackson/.) We are seeking an experience this summer in British Columbia’s holiest of places, and wish to lend any services, be they culinary or first aid (we could both become certified at our own cost if need be) in nature.
It is our sincere wish and hope that whatever we might do to aid in your group’s experience in the magical reaches of Gwaii Haanas would be appreciated in the most heartfelt manner, and we would invite further conversations about how this might come to pass if it should suit you. We are each outgoing young people with a flare for teamwork and adventure, and our credentials I hope speak to our ability to act as competent, valuable volunteers.
In addition to my email address, we can be reached at the following: 604 555-0000, or Melissa’s email: ______________It would be a great pleasure to hear from you, Sincerely yours, Bryan Jackson
A great many of these email met replies which very apologetically outlined a variety of reasons they couldn’t help us out. But one company did reply, bluntly stating:
You can work for us and go along on some trips if you would like. Call us when you are here. Heron.
I had already read about Heron in Ian Gill and David Nunuk’s photojournalistic book Haida Gwaii: Journeys through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Raised in Rose Harbour (and on Hornby Island) Heron Weir is something of an emblem of the islands – his mother still lives at Rose Harbour year-round, easily one of the most remote places in coastal BC – and runs the still-locally-owned Moresby Explorers, on whose behalf he extended his brief invitation to Melissa and me.
And sure enough, when we arrived, Moresby Explorers gave us food to eat, a roof over our heads, and – in exchange for our services doing dishes, making lunches for tours, and tagging along as extra hands on day-trips to refuel vehicles, pick up guests at the airport and ferry and other odd jobs as they crept up – passage aboard zodiac, kayak and float plane through, across and over the expanses of Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve and into some of the world’s most revered places.
All of which would have cost a lot, you know, unless we asked. So it’s a good thing we did.
I’ve brought this up, as I generally do in class, to introduce students to the idea (and the ease, really) of calling, or emailing strangers in the hopes of obtaining an interview, a mentorship, or a favour with regards to their upcoming Eminent Person Study. Historically a hurdle for students in our program, it cannot be overstated the authenticity contacting a ‘real life’ expert lends to this type of research, less so for the information obtained, and more for the lesson that such requests, when worded correctly, are often granted.
With that, here is the advice I am including in the handout outlining the interviewing aspect of the upcoming project. As ever, feel free to add your own means of contacting expert assistance, or help clarify what I’m getting at here via the comments.
Find out who it is you need to speak to
Universities (and their web pages’ staff directory) are a good place to start, if your Eminent Person was involved in academic pursuits, or left their stamp on world history. In other fields, Wikipedia articles are often cited extensively (look at the bottom of the article), providing original source material for information: locate the authors – professors, journalists, etc – and see if they can provide insight (either becoming the interviewee themselves or pointing you towards your eventual subject). Also, if your person’s namesake or field of work is represented by a non-profit organization, such as a foundation or charity, seek out its director of communications, or public relations: they are literally paid to handle requests such as yours.
Show yourself to be serious, prepared and grateful for the help
- State the purpose of your contact up front: I am _______________ and I am doing a research project on the life of ______________.
- But avoid being blunt The above should take more than one sentence, and can include information you have already found on the person, or the field, a summary of how you found the person, or some background on the rationale behind your choice of Eminent Person or the project itself.
- Humble yourself Be accommodating in setting up the interview, such that all the person must reasonably consent to is answering a few already-prepared questions. Acknowledge clearly – repeatedly – that your interviewee is going beyond the call by granting you some insight. Thank them for their time, even if they can only help by providing you with more phone numbers, emails and people to contact in their stead. Politeness (and here we will include grammar, spelling and formal language) will go a long way here.
Synthesize the results
What did you learn? What perspective or angle did your interviewee provide on your Eminent Person? How does this ‘stack up’ with the rest of your research? What do you need to know next? How will this information find its way into your project?
And of course: You should contact your prospective interviewee well in advance of needing the information. This will allow you to not be pushy in arranging a time to meet, talk on the phone, or receive an email.