When people want to ‘pick your brain’

At a talk recently, someone asked me for the best way to handle a high volume of people asking for informational meetings. You know the sort. The niece of someone you knew at an old job wants to get into your industry. A friend’s brother’s friend is looking to start a company. This person was told “oh, you should talk to [you].” An email arrives shortly thereafter asking if you can get coffee. The person is hoping to “pick your brain.”

Certain people receive more of these requests than others. For most of us, it’s only a handful here and there, which means it’s pretty easy to meet demand. If you are in a particularly hard-to-break-into industry, though, or if you actually have the power to hire people (or invest in companies), you will get a lot of these requests. Indeed, you may get more than you can handle.

So how should you handle them?

My first answer is to have the right mindset about all this. Some people have told me they say no to all requests, which I think is silly. In general, people are a good use of time. If nothing else, you might want to give back in honor of the people who helped you, but I actually think these meetings can be intensely practical. The truth is that few of us have so arrived that we cannot continue to be helped by other people. And while it seems like these coffee requests might only aim help in one direction, no one knows that for sure. Meeting with a young Mark Zuckerberg 14 years ago, when he might have been looking for advice and future investors, would not have been a bad use of 45 minutes. Even if that’s unlikely, the person who’s asking to meet knows other people and in the future will know other people, and broader networks tend to be better than smaller networks.

That said, there are only 24 hours in a day. You no doubt have normal job responsibilities to tackle as well. So here’s how to let people “pick your brain” without feeling plucked clean:

Try a list of FAQs. The most annoying part of informational interviews is when people ask the same questions you answered in the last such meeting with someone else. So take an hour or two to create a document of answers to these frequently-asked questions. When someone reaches out to you, send them the list with an explanation like this: “I’m so happy to help! I want to maximize any time we have together. Here’s a list of questions I hear a lot. After you’ve read it, feel free to send me your follow-up questions, so I can make sure I’m the best person for you to talk with.” Fun fact: a majority of people will not follow up. But those that do are being thoughtful and serious about the whole thing, and are probably worth chatting with.

Consider a phone call first. In-person meetings can happen for your second “date” if you decide you want one. A quick phone call allows you to answer people’s follow-up questions, but then also allows you to suss out if this is the sort of person you would enjoy spending time with, and would find engaging. Twenty minutes should be fine for a first call.

Push all such calls and meetings to certain times. Friday mornings, for instance, can be your “pick my brain” time. If you get a ton of these requests, you might need to block out a Friday morning every week, but if you don’t, once (or maybe twice) a month should be OK. If someone asks to pick your brain, that is the time slot the person can be offered. He doesn’t have to take it, but you’ve offered availability. The upside of designating one spot of time is that you know you are investing time in such tasks, but all available time isn’t open to such things. You can stack these calls and meetings on top of each other so you maximize the time. Stacking phone calls is self-explanatory. In-person meetings can be tricker to stack, but it can be done. Choose a coffee spot right by your office so it’s convenient for you. If you want, you can introduce people to each other as they come in for their back-to-back meetings. Or if you want to be sure you can make an exit, find two coffee shops near each other and shuffle between them (“Sorry I have to go, I have to be somewhere at 10:30!”)

How do you handle requests to “pick your brain”?

14 thoughts on “When people want to ‘pick your brain’

  1. I used to get a lot of these requests at work because I’ve been very open about my various flexible work arrangements at a company/industry which doesn’t always seem like it supports that sort of thing. I’ve made some really good friends just by accepting requests for coffee/brain picking! (A definite bonus for an introvert.)

    When I’m feeling crunched by work/life/etc and can’t spare time to meet, I usually ask folks if they have specific questions they can email me, or if they want to do a quick Skype meeting instead (easier to fit into my day than actually leaving the office).

    But in general, even when I don’t feel like I “have time” or the energy to meet a new person, I’m always glad after I do it. For me, I see it as practice to get more comfortable meeting new people, something I’ve never been good at 🙂

  2. This is brilliant! I’m in the Cannabis industry and …..wow, just wow. I’m creating my FAQ document tonight. Thank you!

    1. @ElizabethJudy- I would imagine you get a lot of the same questions asked over and over again! Please do create the document, and then let me m know if it helps 🙂

  3. I’m honestly still at the stage of my career that I still feel flattered when anyone wants to know my opinion about anything. That said, I do sometimes feel like I should have preprinted mom/residency, md phd, academic anesthesia sheets since I get questions on those things all the time.

  4. I hope I don’t sound awful but something I started inadvertently and now sometimes do deliberately is say ‘Sure I’d be happy to meet but I’m travelling/away from my diary/insert plausible excuse here – could you try me again in a week or two?’ or for requests to email help ‘I’d be happy to email you about that – if you haven’t heard from me by next week please follow up as we’re having a busy week so do remind me’ etc etc. And people very rarely follow up. I think some people want to know something, or have a random idea about a new career direction, and figure the easiest way to get that information is to ask – but if they have to follow up then maybe they just google it or work it out themselves. It also helps to weed out those who genuinely want to make a connection with me versus someone who wants to extract my brain. Maybe they feel bad for asking once they know I’m busy, but if you want to know how I run a consultancy/got that board position/won that award etc and you think I have ooodles and oodles of spare time, then maybe you just got the answer you needed? I am genuinely happy to help, always keen to make a new connection and if it’s a slow week I answer straight away…but sometimes I need that filter for genuine requests.

    1. @Lily- I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making sure someone who’s asking for time is serious. I’m not sure I’d hunt for a reason, but even something like “I’d love to help out, this week isn’t good for me, can you follow up next week?” would work. There’s nothing worse than being asked a question you can google the answer easily.

  5. I agree that people who say no to all requests are missing out. I love talking to people in general, and I get real joy from helping other women launch their businesses. I am happy to have brief phone chats with just about anyone, and I’ve found that I do often get as much as I give. AND I recently found that a particular type of help that I give is good enough to be a real service — but I wouldn’t have figured that out without having a bunch of those calls for free.

    1. @Abbi- good point. If you run your own business, or have the flexibility to start a side hustle, seeing what people ask about can be market research for doing a consulting/coaching sideline.

  6. As the one usually doing the brain picking, I have a very targeted agenda for each of the meetings, so that I’m not wasting other people’s time. As a young mother in medicine, I have started to get a lot of questions like “How do you do it??” I always tell people about your books Laura! This year, I am a fellow and work closely with residents at a high octane Internal Medicine program. After meeting the 4th woman resident who was asking questions about the same issues- dual career families, how to balance geography/prestige/opportunities for spouse when looking for a job, when to procreate- I created a mentoring group. I meet with 4 other women every 1-2 months over dinner. They are able to support each other as they are all at the same stage of training, and it has been incredibly rewarding for me to help them lean in to work while building a fulfilling home life. FAQs are a fantastic idea and if I ever become more in demand, I will do this!!

  7. I read about an entrepreneur who would only offer an obscure time; for example, she would only go to these in-person meetings Fridays at 7 a.m. That cut out a lot of superfluous meetings, as most people don’t want to get up early for this type of meeting. p.s. Laura, I absolutely loved hearing you on the Simplfy podcast 🙂

  8. Back when I was doing a bit of consulting, I would sometimes offer a free service to someone but would record the conversation (they would know ahead of time!) or record my screen and fold that content into an information product.

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