How to get to “yes”

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I recently discovered the #1 hardback New York Times best-seller, Humans of New York. The author, Brandon Stanton, began the book quite without a plan to create a book. He was new to NYC, didn’t know anyone, and didn’t have a job, having moved fromΒ  Chicago after losing his position as a bond trader. So he grabbed his camera and went out on the streets.

His plan was simple: walk up to someone and ask, “May I take your picture?” Most turned him down, Humans of New Yorkbut some agreed. Soon he added another element to his work. He asked the person who agreed to be photographed about his or her life. “What’s the saddest moment of your life?” or “What are you hoping for?”Β  And they often answered.

One man told Stanton about how he was afraid because he had prostate cancer. A young woman told Stanton she was angry with her boyfriend, who was standing next to her but apparently had no idea she was estranged from him. A 43-year-old maintenance worker unfolded his tale of, as a youth, hoping to be a major league baseball player, but a motorcycle accident resulted in a leg injury that dashed his dreams. After telling his story, the man paused and said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you that.”

So much fascinates me about this book’s concept. (You can read the New YorkΒ  Times article about it here.) Why, for example, are people snatching up this book of hundreds of photos of people who live in one city (albeit a fascinating and teeming city)? Why did Brandon find the idea interesting enough that he would face being regularly rebuffed by others? But the question that I really focused on was why did people say yes?

Perhaps they were startled into agreeing at first, or they were flattered to have someone ask to take their picture. Maybe it felt good to be selected.

But even more curious is why did they open up to him and tell him details about their lives that either no one knew or that the subject had carefully tucked away to bring out only when it felt like a safe moment?

That question took me back to a book I read earlier this year, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. A classic book that those involved in sales have read for decades, it unveils studies of what makes us say yes–even when we don’t mean to. I recalled that one path we travel to get to “yes” is to agree to some small request, such as, “May I take your picture?” Once we’ve moved onto the yes grid, we tend to stay on it. So, when Brandon Stanton approaches us, and we let him take our picture, we’re pretty likely to agree to answer his questions about our lives.

What does that mean for us in our writing careers? If we want someone to say yes to a big commitment, we should ask for a small one first. That’s how it works when an author asks for an endorsement. Rather than asking for the endorsement, you’re much more likely to get it by asking if that person will read your work, even a portion of it. Then, if he likes it, ask if he will endorse it. Once someone reads your work, he has to veer off the “yes” path to say no, which is much harder to do than one would think.

One of my clients wanted to use Library Insider, a national database of acquisitions librarians, to get more of her books into libraries. Her publisher assured us that they were very good at reaching libraries, and LI wasn’t a good investment. So we asked if marketing would be willing to do an experiment. If my client bought the database for a set number of states, would the publisher pay to have the results of the campaign monitored? The marketing director, finding this a minor request, agreed. We then asked if the publisher would design and print the flyer and pay for the mailing. Having said yes to the smaller request, the marketing director agreed to the larger request–for a marketing idea he didn’t think would work. (By the way, I was confident LI would result in strong sales; it has a very strong track record.

Just remember, when you want someone to say yes, make a small request followed by the bigger request.

What publishing yes are you yearning for? How could you implement this concept to your benefit? How could this concept be abused?

As a bonus question, how would you explain the wild success of Humans of New York?


The secret to getting someone to say yes–even if he doesn’t want to. Click to tweet.

Want to move your writing career forward but can’t get anyone to say yes? Click to tweet.

In a world of publishing no’s, here’s how you get to yes. Click to tweet.

35 Responses

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  1. The venue I’ll be looking at is book clubs – offering a nicely prepared sample chapter in electronic format with a request to distribute it, and consider the book for adoption.

    The sample will be available for download from the book’s website – this gets past the no-no of an unsolicited email with an attachment, and also will – hopefully generate traffic.

    As with any self-promotion, it becomes a potential negative if the aim is too transparently crass, and gives no quid pro quo. The recipient of the request has to be engaged in the process to the point of ‘getting’ something for their trouble.

    Why the success of “Humans of New York”? I think people participated because they wanted to say, “hey – I’m here!”, and leave something of a legacy in a world that seems, increasingly, not to care.

    And people buy because they want to have a solid basis with which to compare their lives. They want to see that they’re not alone in their joys and hardships. In an increasingly fragmented and ‘surface’ society (who would talk about prostate cancer on FB?), these stories makes US feel the depths of being human.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, you’re so right on all points. The sample chapter for book clubs is a great idea. Book clubs are always looking for titles that everyone will enjoy and that make for a great conversation. If you can maybe have a book club read and discuss the book and then offer an endorsement, that might help. And some clubs like having questions to answer or the chance to Skype with the author.

  2. Anne Love says:

    I’d say yes to coffee with an agent! I’d say yes to an agent if I’d invested in that relationship and believed in it. Of course, one day a contract sounds amazing. πŸ™‚

    I think there’s an interesting element in people that it’s often easier to reveal an intimacy with a stranger than someone closer. I think that is the same element that allows people to put up TMI on social media. Sharing intimate details with someone closer often appears much more dangerous–the potential for humiliation, rejection, betrayal, and shame from someone close is a much higher stake. Although, when you stand back and look at it from a logical point of view, it seems one wouldn’t want to “put it out there” for the public either.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Anne, it is sometimes easier, less threatening, to share something personal with a stranger. I have no idea how Mr. Stanton dealt with permissions for his book. Wouldn’t that be interesting to find out?
      And you’re so right about social media being our version of sharing with “friends,” even though most of us don’t know many of those people who see our FB entries.

  3. This is a powerful post. I firmly believe that when a person says or does something once (good or bad), it is easier to do the next time and the next and the next. In the case of marketing and promotion, I am intrigued with the idea of starting with a smaller request and building. It is a combination of human nature, momentum, and building relationships.

  4. Sarah Thomas says:

    I think it’s about relationship. Once you say “yes” to something, you’ve initiated a relationship. And relationships are how you get EVERYTHING done in this world. Which makes me glad.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Good point, Sarah. We develop relationships all the time–the grocery store checkout clerk you have a quick conversation with; the postal carrier when he delivers packages to your door; the Comcast repairman. We just don’t tend to think of them that way. It would benefit all of us if we did.

  5. Jeanne T says:

    I hadn’t heard of the book, Humans of New York. How fascinating. It seems to me most people want to be thought of as significant enough to be heard. I can understand why people opened up to the author.

    The idea of getting a yes to a smaller request makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t considered this idea before this point. I guess it’s a little like getting a “yes” to a query letter that opens up the possibility to a yes to a proposal and a yes from an agent or editor. This is where I am at in the publishing process. πŸ™‚

    This concept could be abused if someone manipulated another into a yes, or didn’t reveal aspects of what she or he was expecting when the other person said yes.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeane, every process that moves another person to a “yes” could be manipulated. I didn’t have room in my blog to write about some of the manipulations written about in Influence. One young man told a pretty woman on the street he was in a contest. To help him win the contest, would she kiss him? She complied. But then she found out the contest wasn’t to collect kisses but magazine subscriptions. She was stunned to find herself buying a subscription. As the author pointed out, the woman had agreed to help the man win a contest. Our natural response, once we’ve entered into a verbal “contract,” is to finish the commitment. You gotta think the guy was manipulative, but his actions got him what he wanted. (Maybe he wanted both the kiss and the sale!)

  6. Michelle Ule says:

    My sense of why people may have responded to Stanton? Maybe it was something about the way he looked and acted when he asked?

    Some people have a way about them, perhaps it’s how their earnest eyes are set in their faces, their respectful manner, or the spirit of God, that calls people to blurt out the truth to them.

    I come from a family of people like that–it constantly amazes us the things perfect strangers will volunteer.

    But then, my father was a salesman and I’ve been trained how to listen.

    And reporters know all the tricks. πŸ™‚

    My publishing yes question?

    Today is Armistice Day; did you know that the one positive story about that dreadful war was the part Oswald Chambers played in it? Would you be interested in reading part of a novel that portrays him and shows how his teaching changed one woman’s life?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Michelle, Brandon Stanton wore a backwards baseball cap, athletic shoes, and other casual gear. Because he was 6’4″, he often knelt in front of people who were seated so he wouldn’t tower over them. He learned all the techniques that made him nonthreatening.

  7. This post brought forth so many emotions for me, Janet. I just recently heard of Humans of New York, although I didn’t know it’s premise. It’s intriguing to me because it’s another example of the same problem in our hurry-scurry-social-media world. Where are the relationships? The true-through, stick-by-you-no-matter-what, call-me-at-three-in-the-morning relationships. Does anyone really and truly care or are they just thinking about what their next Facebook status should be? So when a stranger approaches you on the street, not trying to sell you something, convert you, or kidnap you, but just asks you about you and then really listens? I’m not surprised so many people opened up. Where is our sense of community? What happened to neighbors who would sit on the porch together and sip lemonade without an agenda? Where are the gossip benches, where a person could sit and chat to a real person in complete sentences and exchange happenings of the day or philosophies of life? And now I’ve gotten carried away….

    Okay, let me end this comment with a happy thought. πŸ™‚ The publishing yes I’m yearning for (right now)? A contract.

  8. I echo Meghan’s thoughts as to why New Yorkers responded in this way. It’s a tragic reality in our over-connected world that true community is rare. People everywhere are longing to know that someone cares about them, and our surface communication via Twitter, etc., doesn’t satisfy that deep longing for community. We talk-talk-talk, but listening is often just clicking a “like” button. It isn’t really communication that warms our heart. Stanton listened. That’s unique. We all long to know that someone will listen. My 2 cents.

    • “Listening is often just clicking a like button”
      Wow Stephanie, this is convicting. I’m guilty of tapping the thumbs up sign, sitting back, and feeling proud of how I participated. Sigh. I know that having a deep relationship with everyone is an impossibility, but the discussion here today makes me want to be even more invested in the people who I’ve shared the darker moments of life with.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Stephanie, I think you’re so right that we all long to make a real connection, not a text-connection, or a social-media connection, but a face-to-face one. I personally love that type of book because it teems with individuals in a sea of faces.

  9. Jill Kemerer says:

    I want to read The Humans of New York! It’s my kind of book. πŸ™‚

    As Michelle mentioned earlier, some people are magnets. I am one of them. People often come up to me and share details of their lives, and, yes, they are complete strangers. I figure everyone gets lonely sometimes and maybe they need a friendly face. Who knows if just listening will make a difference in their day? I’m willing to take that chance!

    Thanks for sharing the book and your insights!

  10. That book sounds fascinating! That would be like a dream for me – talking to people and listening to their stories. I think they might have said “yes” to him if they saw he was genuinely interested in them and that he cared for them. I think often we withhold pieces of ourselves from others when we fear they might want to fix us, or make us their project.

    The publishing “yes” I’m looking for is to get women to read who say they never read because they are too busy and can never finish a book. The points you mentioned on getting a smaller yes to build on makes sense. I wonder if this is why shorter chapters, paragraphs and sentences work. We get the reader to say yes, one short sentence at a time. Then they say yes one short chapter at a time. Then before they realize it, they’ve said “yes!” to the entire book.

  11. My small request would be to stay in contact with an agent who’s interested in my MS. My big request would be to resubmit when I’ve addressed the needed concerns. But then I need to say yes to myself. Yes to the hard work. Yes to digging deep and bathing my story with vulnerability and hope.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, okay, then you need to go back and re-read my post on from Nov 4, Are You Afraid to Succeed? But you make a valid point: If we ask for the “yes,” are we ready to receive it?

  12. Great thoughts on saying yes.

    I wanted to add something however about the book you introduced above and why people tell their stories. I think most people WANT to tell their stories!!! I’ve worked Christian events, concerts and radio promotion as a volunteer and one of the things that always astounds me is how many people volunteer their stories once they know someone is listening. It makes you wonder how infrequent listeners come around when someone is soooo ready to share with a stranger. Or maybe the stranger is safer.
    I love doing events for this reason. I’ve come to call myself a story collector.

  13. As Studs Terkel was with his oral histories in the 20th century, Brandon Stanton is on to something.

  14. I have been wondering if agents take on books that have been previously self-published. I just have no idea … that would be the publishing “yes” I am yearning for.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, agents do take on previously self-published books, but we generally look for some pretty hefty interest from that book’s readers. We want to see that the author has the ability to sell books on her own as well as that the book connected with readers. If the book didn’t garner strong sales, then it’s not as likely that a publisher will want to take a look at the book, which in turn means we’re not as interested as well. I hope that explanation helps. (Way to go for the first yes!)

  15. Recently, I introduced myself to a famous literary agent at a national writers conference. I showed her my recently completed, 300-page middle-grade MS for boys titled: The Adventures of a Boy and His Creature.

    When I asked her my first big question – just like that, she said “Yes”.
    I was blown away how easy it was to get a “Yes” from such a famous, highly sought out agent.

    Oh . . . I had asked her, “Can you hear me?”