Ten out of 10 successful people will agree: brain pick requests are the worst.

The more success someone achieves in their field, the more of these requests they tend to receive -- everyone from their brother-in-law's friend's former coworker to random strangers wants to know if they can pick their brain.

Rethinking the "Can I pick your brain?' question

What if you're the person who wants to do the brain picking? Don't lose hope.

Writer Anna Goldfarb realized she had no idea how to ask a favor from someone more established than her. So she found out by asking people who frequently receive this request. In her New York Times piece, Goldfarb offers a few tips on how to ask "Can I pick your brain?" without being annoying.

Begin by finding common ground

Human beings naturally want to connect with each other. Do your research and find a topic or experience you might share with the person you admire. Anything you have in common -- be it a professional connection or where you went to school -- is a good place to start.

If you aren't able to find anything in common, flattery (as long as it's genuine) is another way to begin your request. Why do you admire and respect this person's work? Let them know.

Stop asking the exact same eye roll-inducing question

Next, vow to never ask "Can I pick your brain?" ever again.

It's a meaningless question, and it won't get you what you want. What's intended to be friendly and casual ends up coming off a scripted and generic.

You don't want to annoy your recipient before you've even begun. Choose better language that's more human, and more specific to this individual. Why do you want to pick this particular person's brain? Marketing and strategy consultant Dorie Clark recommends instead going with, "I would like your advice."

Be specific in your request

The more specific your questions, the better. This serves both sides well. You'll be more likely to get a response if you are asking focused, to-the-point questions. And their answers will be more beneficial than generic advice.

Here's an example. "I'm interested in pursuing a career in technology. What is your advice?" That's a bit too broad and rather vague.

Instead, drill into why you want to make this transition and exactly what type of insight might be helpful as you consider this career move. This could be more specific. "I'm considering enrolling in a coding bootcamp to pursue a career in technology. What has your experience been with people who have graduated from these programs?"

Be respectful of the person's time.

Brain pick requests usually come with an offer to buy that person coffee.

But it's not about the coffee. What you're really asking for is their precious time. Remember, this person probably gets a lot of these requests. They can only make time to drink coffee with so many people.

So offer up some options. Could you grab 15 minutes with them on video chat? Could they answer a few questions via email? If they don't have time, could they recommend someone else to speak to?

Always follow up and express your gratitude.

If you do end up meeting the person, be sure to shoot them a note afterwards to thank them for their time. They had no obligation to do meet with you, and it was generous of them to do so. Show your appreciation by writing a short, but meaningful thank you note.

"Being humble, appreciative, and accommodating will make it more likely that the expert will keep making time to meet with others in your position," writes Goldfarb. 

Published on: Mar 23, 2019