"Can I buy you a coffee and pick your brain?" What caused this delusion among the advice-needing people of the world that the going rate for an hour-long professional consultation is a $4 beverage? Why do we all try this early in our careers (and if we work in biz dev, our middle and late careers)?
Photo by Brendan Rankin
I think it's that in our early 20s, most of us haven't realised how generic we seem to everyone we look up to, nor how much busier those people are. We see an exciting new friendship and they see some new crap to do or, ideally, avoid.
So if you find yourself asking to pick someone's brain (a bad phrase), first ask yourself if you really want their advice or just their approval. If it's the latter, go talk to your friends instead, or do something impressive in public.
If you really want advice, just ask it in the email. And follow these rules:
- Spend 95 per cent of your time researching the person you're emailing, and five per cent writing the email.
- Introduce yourself quickly but specifically, and ask specific questions.
- Ask one or two questions. Not three! You'll feel like adding a third because your email looks too short. It isn't.
- Google your questions first.
- Don't offer to "hop on the phone" as a compromise. That isn't a compromise, it's a threat.
- Say "Even one sentence would be great."
- Novelist Tao Lin came up with this one: Tell the recipient it's OK to ignore your email. Not just to say no, but to completely ignore it.
- Say thank you.
- As soon as you're ready to send, find and delete at least one sentence.
- Send and move on. Never "follow up".
The whole point is to make the response feel less like work and more like procrastination. If you ask me out to coffee in your first email, I will fake either an out-of-office reply or my death. If you email me one open question and add "Feel free to ignore," then I will immediately ignore my actual job and write you a book over Gmail.
Send and move on. Be pleasantly surprised if you hear anything back. Then follow these rules:
- Say thank you again.
- If the answer is truly excellent and engaged, feel free to ask a followup question, with the same caveats as before.
- Only ever ask to meet in person after they have written you at least five paragraphs or five exclamation marks.
- Never talk on the phone again.
Every request for advice assumes that the recipient's brain is more valuable, for the moment, than yours. So to get your answers, treat them like that's true.