May I Pick Your Brain eBook Excerpt

Excerpt from the eBook: May I Pick Your Brain?

Last week, a Forbes.com article called No, You Cant Pick My Brain. It Costs Too Much sparked a lively discussion on Twitter. I agree with the premise of the piece (that freelancers cant be expected to hand off the farm for free), but I also see a few grey areas. See, in my world, there are two kinds of brain pickers: potential clients and newbie freelancers (of course, if youre a writing coach then newbie writers could also be potential clients).

Oftentimes potential clients expect a taste of your brilliance before theyll hire you, but you dont want to give away so much that they no longer need you. Ill consult with potential clients over the phone, but I rarely meet with them in person before they’ve signed a contact (and even then, in-person meetings are rare). Sorry, but I gotta draw the line somewhere with prospects.

This opinion may be unpopular, but I think there are times when a little brain-picking from newbies is acceptable. I owe much of my freelance success to the help of mentors who took me under their wing and received no money in return, so I try to pay it forward when I can. While a free coffee or lunch wont cover my bills, it can break up an otherwise solitary day of working from home.

Thats not to say that I drop everything every time someone asks. Heres how I decide when to help and how I ensure that it doesnt turn into a time suck.

  • Have they done their homework?
    There are a ton of free resources out there for aspiring freelancers, so if someone cant be bothered to check out a book from the library or Google for some freelance writing blogs, they probably lack the go-getter attitude needed to successfully freelance. Sorry, but if Im helping up-and-comers, I want to help those who are going to succeed. Its a lot more satisfying to watch someone break into their dream publication than disappear into cyberspace after a few half-hearted attempts. And who knows? Maybe that go-getter will offer a referral or an assignment in the future. (My intern from my last job is a now an editor who assigns me articles so it could happen.)
  • Whats the scope of the request?
    When someone sends a long list of questions about writing, I refer them to my blog or ebook or (if theyre local) my class. I dont have time for a zillions questions, especially when they havent satisfied the criteria above. But when someone has an intelligent, tightly focused question, I try to answer it (doubly so if they mention reading my blog or following me on Twitter). Sometimes Ill even turn that answer into a blog post (with their permission) so the time I spend on it doubles as time spent creating blog content. And the next time someone emails with the same question, I can send them the link instead of answering it again.
  • Do I have time? 
    Catch me on a slower week and I might accept your coffee invite (but only if you come to my neighborhood, Im not burning gas to help an almost stranger who may or may not be appreciative). If Im on deadline, you might get a curt email in response. It sounds arbitrary but its the reality of freelancing. Clients come before free-loaders. (And right now, Im up to my ears in clients so nows probably not the best time to hit me up for informational interviews.)
If youre a newbie or up-and-coming freelancer, then there isa relatively fool-proof way to get veterans to answer your questions: interview them for publication. Pitch a story to an industry blog or magazine, then email those you most admire to see if theyll give you a few minutes of their time in exchange for some marketing mojo. (I did this when I wanted to learn more about ebooks and it worked like a charm.) Or create a section of your blog where you publish interviews with people you admire. Either way, do your homework and keep your questions focused on the essentials. Dont expect them to spend hours on the phone or email discussing every aspect of their career. Give them plenty of time to get back to you and throw in a little (sincere) flattery. Freelancers, what do you think? How do you handle these kinds of requests?