Can I Pick Your Brain

Can I Pick Your Brain? The Fine Line Between Giving Back and Getting Paid

The right connections in publishing can jumpstart your career and make the journey more enjoyable. But there is a fine line when asking for a favor (or a freebie) and networking. This panel looks at how emerging writers can gracefully navigate the art of “the ask” and how established authors can balance their time and effort and meaningful connections. Five publishing insiders share secrets of effective networking without looking self-interested—and when to say no without looking unsupportive.

Every writer, regardless of experience or genre, must network; relationships can make the difference between a so-so and a successful career. In today’s digital world, connecting with others has never been easier—but connectivity has increased opportunities to make gaffes. This panel, comprised of a geographically, ethnically, and professionally diverse group of publishing pros who network in a variety of equally successful ways, gives writers tools to connect in an authentic and effective way.

We are often on the receiving end of requests for help or information. Each week our inboxes swell with messages from former coworkers, friends of friends and people I’ve met at networking events who want advice about writing for a living. As you might suspect, we’ve found there are a right way and a wrong way to tap an acquaintance for professional suggestions.

All of here on this panel have asked for help and given it. There are times I’m sure when we have done it gracefully and other times when, in a panic related to deadlines, or anxiety, or desperation we asked for too much in the wrong way or were unable to help others because of time and energy constraints.

Do’s for asking for help:

More information here:

Ask If your contact as consulting fees.

Educate yourself on the role or field first.

Have you done your due diligence? 

The more informed you are, the more you’ll get out of your conversations with the pros. Skip this critical step and you risk coming across as someone who can’t be bothered to make the minimum effort – and thus, a person unworthy of a pro’s valuable time.

Research your contact before getting in touch.

Get their name, role, and or organization right before reaching out. Check and re-check that you have the right person and are asking questions that they might be able to answer.

Work around your contact’s schedule.

Everyone is busy.  At least once a month, someone invites me to coffee downtown for the express purpose of “picking my brain.” Be flexible with meeting times and places, keep the request for time short, offer to talk during off-business hours and give the person an out. If you do get a meeting, pay for their coffee. Be specific about your expectations and needs.

Come prepared to the meeting.

Spend some time thinking about the questions you want to ask. Write them down in case you blank mid-meeting, and list them in order of importance. Depending on how much time you have with the person, you may not get to them all. Forget questions you can easily answer online. Instead, ask about details missing from the person’s bio, social media profiles and published interviews with the media. Take notes during the call or meeting; the last thing you want to do is email the person afterward to ask for a recap.

Ask specific questions.

During the meeting, keep questions short and precise. No one has time to give you a crash course on everything they’ve learned about their profession in the past decade or two. When someone asks me, “Can you tell me how to freelance?” or “How do I start writing professionally?” These are too vast to answer at coffee.

The more targeted your questions, the more useful an answer you’ll get.

Temper your expectations.

One meeting probably won’t turn an acquaintance into a lifelong mentor or your next boss. And just because someone gave you 20, 30 or 45 minutes of their time doesn’t mean they’ll appreciate you pinging them for weekly advice going forward.

A better approach to building long-term connections is to find out which professional groups your contact belongs to and join them.

Send a small thank-you gift or note.

Yes, a gift, as in a $5 coffee card or a $10 box of chocolates Why? Because if someone has been at their profession five years or more, chances are they get requests like yours all the time. Most of the people they help will send a quick “Thanks so much!” via email, text or social media. Some won’t bother to send a message of thanks at all.

But every so often, someone they’ve advised will snail mail them a note and token gift of thanks. These advice seekers make the best impression.

More info here:

Do’s for those being asked.

  1.     Limit and be clear about the time you have available.
  2.     Set boundaries right up front.
  3.     Clarify what is being asked of you
  4.     Say NO

For example:

The request: “Hey John, any chance I could buy you a cup of coffee next week? I’d love to sit down and pick your brain about leadership.”

The response: “Hi Erin, thanks for reaching out. I appreciate the thought, but my priorities are elsewhere. I won’t be able to meet with you, but you can find information that you are seeking here.

Circle back if you have questions.

Information from:


Or, Say, “No, not right now,” (or “Yes, but not now.”)

The response: “Thanks for thinking of me. I’d love to connect but, for this quarter, I’ve decided to focus my time on (insert here). As a result, I’m currently not taking meetings outside that objective. I hope you don’t mind, but why don’t you check in with me next quarter? Things may have slowed down by then.”

Say, “Yes, but not me.”

The response: “what you are asking about isn’t my area of expertise, but I may know someone that can help.

A Closing Challenge: Just Say No

Unfortunately, I just can’t help you. Thank you for reaching out and good luck.

Good luck, best wishes, Ann

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