5 things to consider before you ask to pick someone's brain

Feb 03, 2020

We are all hungry for wisdom from people in our industry, no matter where we are in our journey. But most often, it’s recent grads who reach out to professionals in the hopes that they can “pick their brain”—an unappealing expression if there ever was one. And yet, it’s also an appropriate description of how it feels to be asked when it’s done the wrong way.

As the owner of a small design shop, I get the occasional can-I-pick-your-brain email. Most often, my reply includes advice on how to make a better ask. The key is to show you value a person’s time and energy with a more thoughtful appeal. Oh, and avoid the phrase “pick your brain” entirely!

Here are some ideas to increase your chances of getting a positive response.

1) Know who you’re addressing.

Instead of sending an email with a generic “hello,” include a name. If you’re emailing a small firm, you’ll likely find the name of the owner on their website. If not, check social media profiles for a contact name. If you know the company is a larger one and is likely to have an office manager, call and ask for a name.

2) Define your questions.

If you’re seeking someone’s valuable time and advice, demonstrate that you’re serious. Few people have time for freewheeling discussions with no boundaries. Include in your email a few of your most burning questions. Be very specific. You might not get all your questions answered, but at least you will have made a connection and gathered some useful advice. This approach shows your commitment to your own quest. The burden is on you to set some parameters for a possible discussion. By being specific, you also help them decide who in their company would be most helpful for you to talk with.

3) Do your homework.

I’m much more likely to reply to a request for advice if the sender shows they’ve done a little homework. Explain why you picked that person or company to contact. Be specific. Go beyond “I really like your work.” Do you share values or interests? Are you attracted by the type of clients they work with? If so, why? Seek advice from people or companies for a specific reason.

4) Be flexible.

Make it clear that you welcome any amount of advice, even via email, and that you’re willing to travel to them. Never ask to meet someone at a cafe or other off-site location unless they offer. It also doesn’t hurt to let them know you’re looking for a limited amount of their time, such as a half-hour, and make sure you stick to it if you do meet.

5) Offer something and follow up.

Is there something you can offer in exchange? If they suggest a place to meet, make it clear it’s your treat. Be quick and organized about making a plan to reduce the number of emails you need to exchange. After your meeting, make sure to follow up and thank them. Send cookies or a hand-written note, or both!

It will take you more time if you follow these suggestions, but you’ll also increase your chances of a reply. In the end, you might not need to contact as many people, because you’ve targeted who you’re reaching out to.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Jane Pellicciotto

Jane is a brand and communication designer who likes to empower people and business with tools to thrive. She can also be found selling her jewelry around the country.