Gini Dietrich

The Age-Old Question: Can I Pick Your Brain?

By: Gini Dietrich | August 5, 2010 | 
71

Yesterday Jason Falls wrote a great blog post about incentive-based consulting and the age-old question in a service business…what do we do when someone asks “can I pick your brain?”…for free. Jason makes a couple of points I’d like to illustrate.

1. A couple of weeks ago Peter Shankman tweeted the following:

2. Kami Watson Huyse wrote a blog post about the arrogance of that tweet and how micro-fame breeds rudeness.

3. And Jason says, “by asking for my nice guy helpfulness, you’re costing me money.”

I think Jason’s blog post is less about incentive-based consulting and more about something that is rampant in the industries where people sell their brains for a living. Time is how we make our money. We don’t make widgets. We don’t sell products. We don’t manufacture anything. We don’t process anything. Our brains are our products and, Jason is right, every time someone asks us for free help, they’re taking us away from clients or opportunities to make us money.

On the second point, I know Kami thinks Peter’s tweet is arrogant and her post on the topic talks about how fame breeds arrogance. I disagree. I am not famous. I am not a celebrity. I certainly hope I’m not arrogant. I own a business – one that is growing and one that has a huge and very aggressive vision. And I get asked at least three times every day if someone can spend “just 30 minutes” with me, grab a cup of coffee, or have lunch to use what is in my brain for their benefit (worse are the ones who pretend they want to buy me a glass of wine while they use my personal time and then don’t pick up the tab). Just like Jason, Peter, and even Chris Brogan, I have a certain helpfulness that makes me want to say yes. I want people to like me and part of that want is always wanting to help.

But I cannot say yes to everyone because almost all of it takes me away from my vision. This is a big conversation we have internally all the time – how do we decide what is me being overly nice and what is a request that is going to move us closer to the vision? We don’t have all of the answers yet, but we do have a ton of places where you can get free advice from me every day.

They include:

* Picking my brain by asking me a question on the Arment Dietrich Facebook wall – I answer one question, via video, every week.

* Subscribing to the Arment Dietrich YouTube channel, where all of our free advice videos are stored.

* Joining the conversation right here by subscribing to Spin Sucks – I actively participate in the comments section, keep an open mind, and even sometimes change my view on things, based on what you wisely communicate.

* Following Spin Sucks on Twitter because it is a content aggregate of all things Arment Dietrich and blog-related that is my brain on virtual paper, in podcast, or on video. We don’t just tweet the blog posts – we tweet all of the columns and articles I write, any interview I do, the weekly InsidePR podcast, any letters to the editors or OpEds from my team, and all of our guest bloggers.

* Joining the discussion in the Facebook digital marketing community where the industry talks about the changes happening, what it means for our careers, and how to stay ahead of trends.

* Subscribing to the Arment Dietrich Delicious page where I bookmark articles, case studies, and great thinking multiple times each day and they’re nicely tagged for ease-of use (i.e. want social media policies? Search the policy tag).

* Following me on Twitter. I tweet multiple times a day and, yeah, I tweet our blog posts, but I also tweet blogs, articles, podcasts, and videos I find really interesting that have nothing to do with us.

I know everyone thinks their situation is different and that the advice we’ve made available on the web isn’t going to answer your question. But, trust me, if you simply click on one of the links above, I’m fairly certain you’ll find what you need more quickly than I can answer your email, phone call, tweet, Facebook message, instant message, or Skype message.

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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71 Comments on "The Age-Old Question: Can I Pick Your Brain?"

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Boyd Neil
5 years 8 months ago

Couldn’t agree more with your post. I am happy to have my brain “picked” over coffee or wine (preferably the latter)especially by students, but I prefer that people know a little about what I think (and have helped boost my blog stats and Twitter ‘energy’) before we meet.

Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Boyd, I think working with students is something completely different than someone with a career wanting you to read their business plan, review their website, read their last 10 blog posts, or help them write a marketing plan for free. Working with students gives back to the industry and is something everyone should do. For those who do, it’s very admirable and giving.

Roger Wohlner
5 years 8 months ago

Gini great post and always a tough call for me. As you said I always want to help, but this is also how I make a living. I look at these requests on a case by case basis, I really don’t have a hard or fast rule as to when I say yes or no. I probably need to develop one.

Jeannie Walters
5 years 8 months ago
Um, yeah, this is a hot topic. I have trouble with this, too, and it’s just little ol’ me. I was recently asked about my pricing structure by someone setting up a similar consultancy. I did my best tap dance around it, but I could tell my answer left her annoyed. I didn’t want to be disliked, but I didn’t feel it was necessary to divulge private company info because someone asked nicely. It’s tricky. I think it’s gaining awareness because of the whole Peter/Jason types who are talking about it openly. I hope people will think twice and understand… Read more »
Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Jeannie, I can’t wait to pick your brain tonight on the customer experience and how we can integrate your work at Arment Dietrich. But don’t think I’m picking up the tab. HAHAHA!! Can’t wait to see you! xoxo

Jeannie Walters
5 years 8 months ago

Oh no you don’t. I am picking YOUR brain.

Mark
5 years 8 months ago

Knowledge is power; I wear so many hats as a business owner and keeping informed on all the countless things I need to know isn’t always easy. The concise info you shared is appreciated. Thanks.

Paige Worthy
5 years 8 months ago

I’m firmly on your side on this, Gini, and on Jason’s. Stand your ground!

Karen Swim
5 years 8 months ago

Gini, I really appreciate your courage in tackling a tough subject with honesty and your own personal experience. I love helping people but I nearly “gave” myself into poverty. I don’t think Peter’s tweet was arrogant. I make my living from my time too, and I am not famous not even in my own mind. Yet, I had to draw a line about giving away my time. What I do for a living has a cost associated with it. If I give away my business I am not being a good steward.

steve_dodd
5 years 8 months ago

Wow, this is the classic dilemma facing all “consultants”. But, I don’t think there is any hard rule. It all depends on the upside you think you can garner from the conversation. In all cases you need to determine if a bit of “Free” can help you engage more to find a business opportunity. If “Free” is being abused, then you need to tactfully move the discussion to a paid service or just let them drift away.

Jason Verhoosky
5 years 8 months ago
Thank You! Thank you for speaking to the subject with such reasoning and eloquence. I struggle with this topic everyday, and have the horrible habit of wanting to help, wanting to be liked, and constantly questioning the value of the information I offer. I freely admit that I am not an expert, or famous, but I do feel that my thoughts and knowledge have value. I have recently come to grips with the fact that I give away a lot for free via my blog and community presentations, and that one-on-one work requires a fee, and merits one. If we… Read more »
Jennifer Devitt
5 years 8 months ago

Oh, I am totally agree with you on this! We get this all the time, or the ever famous “sweat equity” request. What I find even worse is the ones that miss represent themselves, set up a meeting only to pick our brains…not even upfront about it.

Kevin
5 years 8 months ago
Hi Gini, Great post. I am not in your industry, but have had similar situations when I ran an IT-based consulting firm. The really short comment to this topic is that I used to look at the “can I pick your brain?” question a little like how Costco sells more of a particular item by providing samples of that item to the consumer, for free. If I get a taste of a particular item, I am more likely to buy that item. The fine line is how much of the sample should we offer before snatching it away and telling… Read more »
Rachel Baker
5 years 8 months ago
Kevin & Gini, I run an IT Consulting company and I am a hit at parties. Once I tell someone “what I do” they tend to respond by telling me about some sort of computer/software/email/website problem they are having either at home or at their office. If it is a quick response, I offer my free advice. Often I respond by giving them my card and suggest we setup a service appointment or consulting agreement. I didn’t used to do this. I used to give advice more freely than I do now, but I am also busier than I have… Read more »
Katrina
Katrina
5 years 8 months ago
I get it all the time, usually disguised as an invitation to hang out at someone’s house resulting in an ambush request for recommendations for their yard. I’ve developed a strategy of explaining they and their landscape deserve a proper needs assessment where I can take the appropriate amount of time to determine their design needs and provide them with a full proposal. I further explain that my $300 needs assessment fee can be applied to the service fees should they elect to pursue the project. And I rarely accept another invitation from that person to “hang out”. I figure… Read more »
Jason Verhoosky
5 years 8 months ago

Great practice and method to handle this situation. That said, I would pay good money to watch you poke someone in the eye;)

Mandy
5 years 8 months ago
It’s a tough thing to say “no”, especially when it’s in your character to always offer assistance. On one hand, a piece of free advice could be a step toward forming a strong working relationship that could really be profitable on a variety of levels. On the other hand, it can devalue your services and make it difficult to grow. Also, I’m glad that students came up in the comments. I’m still a student and I absolutely love it when I can get insight and advice from professionals. Just look at the #PRStudChat. It’s an invaluable resource! Although, those who… Read more »
Kat Jaibur
5 years 8 months ago
Interesting timing. Right now, I’ve got about a half-dozen or more invites for “coffee” and to “hang out” that I’m trying to manage.The last time I did it, I gave away about 2 hours of coaching. (Bad coach! I know.) It’s a hard thing for me to keep in check — in coaching and in marketing, because the ideas just pop into my head and want to shoot out my mouth. So you see, my brain is pretty ripe for picking. Learning to set boundaries, to really respect that our time & our brains ARE how we stay in business… Read more »
Jason Verhoosky
5 years 8 months ago

HUGE fan of Allison Nazarian’s Contact page! That said, I don’t know if I have it in me to put it out there like that.

Someday, I hope to be that comfortable.

Mimi Meredith
5 years 8 months ago

Kat, thank you for sharing this link. What a great writer. I would Allison in an instant, based on the contact page alone.

Mary
5 years 8 months ago
I am a coach, rather than a consultant, but I still get this type of behavior: “Can you help me with X?” It’s one thing if it comes from my daughter or husband, but different when it comes from people I hardly know. One way around it that I’ve found is to set aside a fixed amount of time to respond to this sort of thing. And I let the person know that I will work with them for 15-30 minutes, but if they need more, they have to hire me (or someone else), because I have bills to pay,… Read more »
Joey Strawn
5 years 8 months ago
I can see both sides of this issue quite clearly. When I first got into working with people and companies on their strategies, it was helpful for me to have conversations with people who had been in the business for a while (almost like a mentor situation)and I was very grateful for the people that took the time to talk with me. On the other hand, I have a standard structure for people who want me to consult with them about their business or marketing plan. I try hard not to waiver from it, but it can be difficult as… Read more »
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[…] Dietrich chimed in with a few ways you can glean wisdom from her for free. Some of these options require more work or patience on your part, but if you want the […]

Les McKeown
5 years 8 months ago
Good post, Gini. Not sure if it would work for everyone, but I set aside one day a month for gratis calls, and have a little reservation form on my website folks can use on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis to book a 30minute slot. When I receive the ‘can I pick your brains’ emails, I send them there (if it’s late in the month, they may need to get in the queue for the next month). I rarely do f2f except for close friends and special cases (case by case). I actually love these calls – they’re always different, interesting,… Read more »
Del Williams
5 years 8 months ago

Could not agree with you more. Peter Shankman started the conversation, but Chris Brogan and others have all chimed in with blog posts which agree. It’s like people at cocktail parties asking doctors for free advice. Sadly people get upset for what is really their bad manners. My guess is they don’t see their value of the own time, so why would they want to compensate someone else for theirs?

Davina K. Brewer
5 years 8 months ago

Ha, I was going to mention doctors but you beat me to it. Lawyers are another, everyone always asking for advice.. but not wanting to pay for it.

Patti Knight
5 years 8 months ago
This use to happen to Gini exclusively but now also happens to me – usually it’s family asking to “pick my brain” and I ususally graciously have to leave the room and usually when I return they are on a different subject. It’s a tough call thought – do you help for free or do you tell them nicely but firmly that it is taking you away from billable work? It reminds me of my uncle Ray who was a mechanic by trade and now I understand why he was so frustrated with the family that always wanted “free” car… Read more »
Davina K. Brewer
5 years 8 months ago
Gini, This is an age old question, and it’ll never go away. People will always try to get something for nothing. It’s hard when our brains and talent are our product and service. Even more than say doctors and lawyers, so much of what we do is part science, part art, part X factor.. not everyone can really wrap their heads around it. I love the approach you’ve taken. You’ve “digitized” your brain and put it out there: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and of course, this blog. That’s a huge help to anyone willing to take the time, but that’s the… Read more »
Jennifer MacDonald
5 years 8 months ago
Gini thank you for this post. I actually saw Jason Falls speak last week in Seattle at our Social Media Club event, he was great. Definitely a realist approach to those of us employed with social media responsibilities. I have been getting asked this question a bit lately, and I also have been trying to determine how to approach my answer, without coming across cold or unfriendly. I also want to be liked and I am trying to meet new people in my new homestead so it is a good networking opportunity. The examples you outlined above are great and… Read more »
Corey j. Tronchin
5 years 8 months ago

Hey if it dinner and drinks, sure pick my brain. Barter is as good as money and even better. Anytime in New York it will have great intrinsic value, with the people we will meet out that i know and share with others equates to serendipity and gained tacit knowledge and guarantee your social media thinking will start tingling. Thank you

Mimi Meredith
5 years 8 months ago

Gini, I’ve always been impressed with the warmth and generous way in which you “freely” share your knowledge. Seeing the list of opportunities to tap into your A/D Braintrust humbles me. I need to share something good…fast!

So while this post offers a very valid point about boundaries, it also inspired me to create more channels by which people can easily and access what I have to offer at no charge. Thank you for that!

JohnRobbins
5 years 8 months ago

If someone wants to pick your brain so they can learn your service so they won’t have to pay you for your service, Well……try to keep the peace and send them to the Internet and encourage them to research your service.
Help them appreciate that basically anything you could ever want to know is on the net and that your knowledge wasn’t received for free and you can’t give it away for free.
If they want to pay for your time and knowledge, Take It!

Jennifer Goldin
5 years 8 months ago
I’ve spent the majority of my career working at top 10 PR agencies, where I had little time in between meeting unrealistic billability targets to offer my brain for picking to contacts outside my firm. I never felt good about that – I’m a collaborator at heart. A few years ago, I formed my own communications consultancy with two partners. Our business model thrives on the principles of collaboration, collective thinking…and a giver’s gain mentality. We’ve worked extremely hard to cultivate a network of partners, peers, experts and resources that subscribe to this mentality, and as a result our network… Read more »
Heidi Cool
5 years 8 months ago
I have to admit it is reassuring to see how many others struggle with this same issue. As others have suggested I try to examine each situation in terms of the long run. Will the hour over coffee potentially lead to paid business or referrals? Or is it just someone wanting free advice? If I see the meeting as an opportunity then I’ll meet. If not I explain that they can hire me for a 2 hour consulting session during which we can brainstorm ideas for their marketing plan, I can teach them about some aspect of social media, or… Read more »
Julie Walraven | Resume Services
Hi Gini, Brent Peterson’s interview with you enlightened me on who you are. Now I see why he interviewed you. Great topic and insightful post. Totally relevant for me too as it is an issue I am struggling with. Born to be helpful, I help most of the time without thinking about it and I feel better about me because of it. But that help can be running outside to pick up something that the man on the motorized scooter dropped (this morning) to returning lost dogs. My blog is chock full of jobseeker information and I share openly on… Read more »
Tom Reaoch
5 years 8 months ago

Gini,
Just my two cents worth:
This is my greatest personal and professional dilemma. Getting before giving or giving before getting. My mother always said “Give and you shall receive” and it always worked for her. I just read some of the letters on http://givingpledge.org . Worth reading.

Danny Brown
5 years 8 months ago

You still owe me $500 for the trick with the “invisible” Facebook tab.

Sheesh… 😉

Great stuff as usual, Gini. I think anyone and everyone in our position faces the same dilemma at some point.

There’s open; and then there’s open to being taken advantage of. The first one is up to you; the second one too, but it’s also up to the folks asking not to take advantage.

Now if we could only figure out a way of doing *that*, we’d be good to go :)

Nancy Cawley Jean
Nancy Cawley Jean
5 years 8 months ago
Gini, another great post, one that so many of us can relate to from both sides of the coin. I think it’s natural for people to look to others they consider experts in a field to garner wisdom and advice that can help them in their efforts. I believe that there are many folks out there who want to “pick your brain” because of that, and naively don’t realize that you could spend your entire day, every day, dispensing your expertise to help them! People like you and so many others who share their thoughts and ideas through blogs, tweets,… Read more »
Jon Buscall
5 years 8 months ago

Great piece, Gini. I regularly get hit for “coffee” and often come away thinking I’ve had my pocket picked.

It’s hard though because I do think we have to put ourselves out there to spread the word about something we’re passionate about and also show our services. I like to think that chatting with people is, in a crude way, content marketing. Our ideas, comments and thoughts are the “content”; the hope is that it will lead to business – at some point down the line.

Still, it’s very hard to

Jeff Bialek
Jeff Bialek
5 years 8 months ago

Gini, a well thought out and personal response…and a great reminder for all who find themselves on both sides of that question; often in the role of the picker or the pick-ee!

Sheesh, and I thought cupcakes or Lemonheads might do the trick!

Angie A. Swartz
5 years 8 months ago
Gini, I’m glad you wrote about this topic as I know many of us struggle with it. I’ve answered the question many times too. Those of us who make money as consultants need our own “personal Board of Directors” who we can trust and rely on for advice. Sometimes, we give it in return. For those Board Members, I’m happy to meet for coffee/wine because they’ve earned it, I owe them reciprocity and I love them. However, if that’s not the case and I don’t have something you need, then I should pay right? I wasn’t sitting up late next… Read more »
Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago
Lots of great fodder here – on both sides of the coin! I don’t want to reply to each of you on your comments because that means, if you’ve subscribed to the comments, you’re about to get 41 emails. Instead, I’ll do it in one comment and hope I don’t lose my copy! Karen, you’re famous in MY mind! And your point about not being a good steward if we give away our thoughts to some and charge others for them is very valid! Steve, I think we agree on when it’s okay to network/meet in person/chat on the phone… Read more »
Kevin
5 years 8 months ago

Well, maybe I am in your industry, but certainly not in your league.

Wine could be shipped later in the month, although we may want to wait due to heat concerns from shipping at that time.

Jonathan Levitt
5 years 8 months ago

A provocative post Gini. I’m not surprised 😉 this one, were in agreement on.

Abbie S. Fink
5 years 8 months ago
When you put yourself out there, you are bound to get these types of requests. I try to look at each “pick your brain” coffee as an opportunity for me to learn something too. I have been in the asking role before — when I started my business, when I was considering going back for my master’s degree, when I struggle with HR issues or other client issues. I have my go-to people that I know will help me. I don’t mind being that person for others. I am upfront with them that it has to be convenient to my… Read more »
Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago
So Abbie, what’s your philosophy when someone asks you to review a PR plan for them, help them brainstorm around strategies, teach them how to set up social networks, or to review their blog posts for grammar and spelling? I think there is a HUGE difference between asking for free advice that clients pay us to do and asking for advice around an experience (i.e. HR issues or how we work in each other’s markets). Like you, I like being a mentor and friend to others to help them grow in their careers. I do not like giving my advice… Read more »
Barry Silver
5 years 8 months ago

Bravo!! If you do not advocate for and defend your product who will? (I’m exempt, right?)

Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Barry, of course you’re exempt! LOL!

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[…] two folks I admire — Jason Falls and Gini Dietrich — have written some great thoughts on people who over stress a professional relationship by […]

Dave Isbell
5 years 8 months ago
Gini, I concur with your post 100%. You have given so much away “for free” already, that one needs only follow you in the places you suggested to get schooled by you. In fact, I’ve learned much of what I know about online communication from you and I am constantly trying to find ways that I can repay you for what you have done already! As far as my situation is concerned, in my role as a Career Coach, all I have to offer is my time, a listening ear, and the years of knowledge I have worked hard to… Read more »
Debra Bethard-Caplick
Debra Bethard-Caplick
5 years 8 months ago
Gini, I appreciated your thoughtful response much more than Peter’s all-out flaming response to Kami: http://shankman.com/an-open-letter-to-kami/trackback/. His Tweet did sound arrogant if you didn’t know him (or even if you did), which was why she used of it as an example that got her started thinking about the subject. It’s an example of why sarcasm and humor often doesn’t translate well online. It was not the focus of the entire blog, until Peter blew one of his own Five Things You Shouldn’t Do rules: “Don’t use Social Media as a ‘screw you’…Thousands of followers don’t need to see specific little… Read more »
Rachael
5 years 8 months ago
Thanks Gini for a great article. I could definitely relate as I increasingly have friends ask me for a “design” favor which is really “can you design something for me for free”. I have to attest that you do offer so many great ways to “pick your brain” that is conducive to your career and doesn’t over compromise your boundaries. For as busy as you are, you have always been quick to respond to a question on Twitter, a comment on your blog etc. I think this is a good lesson for all business people to learn and I think… Read more »
John Christianson
5 years 8 months ago

Not only am I a closet introvert, but also a raging people pleaser. This latter trait and my inability to set boundaries gets me into trouble all the time. I do want to help people and feel part of my life calling is to have compassion for “others” needs but this can be in stark contrast to building a business at times. My latest revelation is learning how to better trust myself and my intuition as to when and how I want to spend my time. Great thought provoking piece!

Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Oh great, John. We make quite the pair – both introverts and raging people pleasers.

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[…] The Age-Old Question: Can I Pick Your Brain? […]

Russ Riendeau
5 years 8 months ago
Brain For Hire: A half a grand down the drain. I’m a headhunter: I find talent to make executives more money. So I get a call from a CEO asking me to interview a candidate they found on their own. “Russ, we’ll pay you interview him and give us your opinion. We like the candidate but want a professional opinion.” So I interview the candidate. I write a report for the CEO with these facts, not MY OPINIONS, mind you: 1. Candidate has had 6 employers in 5 years. 2. Unemployed for 5 months 3. Lied on resume, leaving a… Read more »
Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Russ, your comment won’t leave my brain. I was thinking about it during my entire ride yesterday (minus the last 15 miles when my quads were on fire). There are so many key learnings in this one comment and I thank you for taking the time to teach us all!

Shelly
5 years 8 months ago

You have some great comments here to a great post! :)

I love Allison’s contact page too – it is awesome…

I totally want to take you out for wine and talk about nothing but shoes! :) LOL

Shelly
5 years 8 months ago

oh dang… ok… not just shoes… wine, dogs, men, maybe politics, ummm… and other stuff… lol

Gini Dietrich
5 years 8 months ago

Shelly, I will share a bottle of wine with you any day, any time!

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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michelle Edwards CPA, Michelle Edwards. Michelle Edwards said: The Age-Old Question: Can I Pick Your Brain? http://bit.ly/bAD740 – For those of you who's "brain" is your product, what are your thoughts? […]

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Amber Cleveland
5 years 8 months ago

Couldn’t agree more with this post. Especially when so many provide tons of free information that if the “brain picker” would take the time to research what has been said in the past, they may not need to take up someone else’s time to begin with. Time is a commodity…for everyone, so we should all spend it wisely.

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[…] bloggers have highlighted the offensiveness of this phrase. Again and again. And again. Enough said. University classes train students to be passive students. Talking with Liz […]

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[…] Dietrich won’t let you pick her brain (neither will I) because she shares a ton of great advice for FREE via newsletters, blogs, videos […]

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