How to manage “Can I pick your brain?” requests

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You open your inbox, see an email from someone unfamiliar, read it, and see the dreaded “Can I pick pick your brain?” request. No context, no offer to compensate you for your time, just this vague demand to extract value from you without contributing anything in return. What are some ways you can reply to these emails without sounding rude, and how can you avoid being the offender when you need advice from someone?

Replying to “Can I pick your brain?” requests

Let’s say you are on the receiving end of one of these requests. First, know that you do not have to reply at all. Your time and your mental energy are precious. If it feels like someone did not put any effort into sending you a “pick your brain” email, you don’t need to put any effort into replying either.

That being said, sometimes people have a genuine need, and the “pick you brain” format can be due to clumsiness or limited professional experience rather than laziness. In those cases, you may want to take a minute to reply. Here are some options:

  • Turn the request into a consulting opportunity. If the person who reached out wants to “pick your brain” about a work project that is relevant to your expertise, and you are willing to spend some time helping them, you can ask for compensation. You could either share your hourly rate, or send them a link to book a consulting session. For example, tools like Calendly integrate with PayPal and Stripe.
  • Share an alternative resource. If the person is reaching out about something that may not work as a consulting project, or they may not have budget — for instance, if they’re a student — you can redirect them to another resource, such as a blog post, a podcast episode, a book, or an online community around the topic they want to explore.
  • Offer to answer some questions over email. Finally, if you do want to help despite the vagueness of the request but have limited time, you could ask the person to share their most important questions for you to answer over email.

A great way to get compound interest on the time you spend answering such queries is to create a list of frequently asked questions. Whenever someone asks a question that already appears on that list, you can send them the link.

How to improve your brain-picking requests

Brain-picking requests are rarely successful because people who receive them may be afraid of wasting their time by replying to them. In order to get the advice you need while not being considered a bit of a jerk, here are five steps to set clear expectations and to show the person you’re reaching out to that you value their time:

  1. Set specific intentions. The more targeted your request is, the more likely the receiver will be to understand whether they have capacity to help. Professor David Garvin and Professor Joshua Margolis from Harvard Business School identified four different types of advice: discrete advice, where you need help exploring options for a single decision; counsel, where you need guidance on how to approach an unfamiliar situation; coaching, where you need help with personal development; and mentoring, where you need support in navigating work and building your career. Take the time to think about what exactly is the nature of your request.
  2. Do your research. Show that you have tried to get the information you need in other ways, and resolved to send them an email because you could not figure out an answer to your query based on what’s freely available through other means. “I have read your blog post about X and wanted to ask…” or “I see that you joined the editorial team of this magazine a year ago and I was wondering…” show that you have done your research and need further information. If the person accepts the meeting, spend a bit more time watching videos, listening to podcasts, or reading the work of your target advisor.
  3. Keep it brief. Consider the time it will take for the receiver to read your email, reply to it, and maybe set up some time. Keep your communication short and to the point. If they agree to meet, make it as easy and quick as possible. For example, a short Zoom call is better than a coffee chat across the city.
  4. Provide value. Of course, the goal of a brain-picking request is to get valuable advice from someone who is knowledgeable about a specific area of knowledge or personal growth you want to explore. But it doesn’t mean you should not try to provide some value in return. The value could simply be monetary, by compensating your advisor for their time, but you could also share the notes you took during the meeting back with them, or offer to credit them in the output of the work you are conducting. If you’re not sure how to provide value, just ask. “How can I help you?” is sometimes made fun of as an overused question, but it does work.
  5. Be polite. Whether the person helps you by sharing alternative resources and answering a few questions over email, or walks you through your problem over the phone, don’t forget to say thank you! You can send a quick thank you note, even though other gestures will be more memorable. For example, if you are an entrepreneur, you could give your advisor a free sample of your product. If you are active on social media, you could thank them publicly for their time and share a link to their work. Think of what would be the most appropriate way to thank them — just don’t forget to show your appreciation for their time.

That’s it — it really isn’t that hard, and spending a little bit more time to send high-quality brain-picking requests will result in more fruitful conversations. Not only is it a great way to protect people’s mental health by not overflooding their inboxes with unclear requests, but it can help the sender gain more clarity around their specific needs. Win-win!