The “can I pick you brain” email is one that I get all the time. And I dread it. Not because I hate talking to people. Not because I don’t want to answer questions. Not because I don’t want to help.
Simply because it’s a frustrating approach.
It’s just way too vague. There’s nothing I can do except respond to it and wait for another response, and go back and forth, and exchange a dozen emails before I can give someone any kind of good advice.
You can’t pick my brain because my brain doesn’t work like that. If you want information from me, you are more than welcome to it. In fact, I’m an open book. I love answering questions, I love making time for people. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.
Asking if you can pick someone’s brain is definitively the wrong way. Messaging them out of nowhere on Twitter and to do it is also the wrong way. Finding their mobile number and calling them at 1 AM is also the wrong way (and yes this has genuinely happened).
This is the right way to ask for help.
(And this would probably work a lot better for approaching most people, because it’s simple, straightforward, and it doesn’t fuck around. It’s also the technique I use when I want to ask anyone for advice.)
Email someone and ask them your top 2 questions. Numbered out. Clearly stated. And never, ever more than 2.
Introduce yourself in the email. State how you happened to find the person you’re contacting — that’s just useful for them to know. Then pitch your questions.
Think about them, think carefully. Decide what’s important to you to know, and what you need to find out. If you can’t drill them down to a few simple questions, around a sentence each, you are overthinking, so try to avoid that.
By giving someone 2 questions, you give them 2 opportunities to be of value and lend a hand. If they can’t help with one, they might be able to help with another.
Here’s a template for it:
Hi,I’m George Weasley. I found you through your blog on Medium, and I wanted to reach out. I’m building a small joke shop business in Diagon Alley and I had some questions.1. How would you show you’re different from a competitor?
There’s already several joke shops in my niche, and while I know what makes us different, it’s hard to communicate that to our customers. We want to show that we’re more inventive and more original.2. How can we sell to our target market when they’re at school most of the year?
Our best customers are Hogwarts students, but they’re at school for most of the year, and I’m not sure how to reach them. An e-commerce solution won’t work, because this is the Harry Potter world and the internet isn’t big right now. Also, Muggle technology doesn’t work there.Thanks so much for your time!G.W.
Generally speaking, people want to be helpful. I believe that. People want to reach out and help other humans, and they’ll take every chance they can. There are exceptions to that, but I’ve found most people to be friendly and willing to give what they can.
But you’ve got to make it easy for them. You’ve got to make it something that they can actually do, without taking up too much of their time. You’ve got to give them the chance to be useful in the limited time and with the limited resources that they’ve got.
I promise you, I’ll do my absolute best to respond. I can’t get to everything, because I get a lot of emails and there’s a lot of Arrested Development episodes I can’t stop re-watching, but I try my damnedest.
Here’s the key:
- Don’t get mad if people can’t give you help. They’re busy. They have partners, parents, siblings, relatives and best friends to talk to before they get to you.
- Make it as easy as you can for someone to help you out.
- Don’t ask vague questions, you’ll get vague answers.
- If you can offer something in exchange for the help, do it. Amazon gift card, free services, referrals, testimonials, anything. It’s a nice gesture.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.