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”?