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Do You Run Screaming (or Do You Make Money) When Someone Asks “Can I Pick Your Brain?”

It’s another Expert Briefs, which is a mix of awesome fun stuff I find through research PLUS I ask really smart business owners to answer your burning questions.

One thing that I've struggled with over the years (since I started this business in 2004) is the “Can I pick your brain?” question.

The super sweet part of me has said “yes” many many times. Sometimes it's awesome. But, honestly it rarely makes me feel like it was a great use of my time – or theirs. (I'll explain in a bit.)

The exception to this is when I've offered 15 minute sessions at conferences for a few hours to the people who were in my session. That is always super fun and I love it! But they just sat through an hour-long teaching presentation with me, so they know who I am, what I stand for, who I help, and how I can help them – before they sit in the chair.

Over the years, I've done a lot of introspection over this.

How can I help these people WHILE also feeling like it was a good use of both of our time. Actually, not a good use, because it's always good to connect with people but the BEST way to connect.

I love to share information. I love to be generous. I love to help others.

I know that there is a smart way to do it and there's also a way that leaves me feeling frustrated – which is not good.

I'll share more in my part, but first… I asked my smart friends this:

How do you handle people who want to “pick your brain” over coffee or on a Skype call?

Do you let them? Do you have a system for this that makes you money? Do you prequalify them?

Or do you deflect and run away? If you deflect, how?

This post is a compilation of responses from my friends and excerpts from people who I admire who are not my friends – yet.

I hope you enjoy this post. If so, please share!

Amy Porterfield

From Nicole: In her podcast, Amy talked about 5 things she stopped saying “yes” to, including the “Can I Pick Your Brain?” question. This is an excerpt, but you can read the whole transcript here. She said… 

In the early days when I was meeting with people I did have a lot of opportunity just to meet with people. It was a pitch and catch and great conversations.

Then it turned into more of a pick-your-brain scenario and that’s when I started to say “no”. I had a former hair stylist that every time I sat in her chair she would pick my brain.

Here I was paying for the service and I had to give her advice the whole time. Then I would go home and a day later I would get a text asking me more advice. Notice, I said “former” hair stylist. Nobody wants to do that. You’ve got to have that down time, right?

I think with this one, saying ‘yes’ to one-off chats and coffees you have to be careful about it. I still want you to do it but when you start to feel resentful you have to pull yourself back.

You can’t be mad at anybody. They are allowed to ask you to pick your brain. You’re the one that has to say, “You know what, no. I’m not going to do this anymore.”

I eventually realized it wasn’t my “best “yes” to say “yes” to these types of meetings. I needed to get my time back. Remember, every single time you say “yes” to a coffee date or an opportunity to have lunch with someone you are taking yourself away from your work.

You’re taking your focus away time, your effort, possibly money. Say “yes” to what feels right to you but be mindful of that as well.

For you, I know you’re getting these requests or you’re going to start getting them soon. People will want to meet with you. I want you to limit them and also just be really mindful and go with your gut.

If someone asks you to a coffee date you can even ask a few questions just to make sure it’s not a whole session where they’re going to ask you a million questions and you don’t get any value from it.

I will say that going with your gut is important too because just a few years ago Rick Mulready asked me to a coffee date. I didn’t know him. He was a referral from Pat Flynn. Pat introduced us.

I wasn’t really sure who this guy was so I didn’t know if he was going to pick my brain. But I just had a good feeling about it. I felt like he just wanted to get together to meet other people in the industry.

Now we are best friends so I’m glad I said “yes” to that coffee date. So go with your gut on that.

Lisa R. Wells
Marketing, Operations, & Systems Guide

When I first started my business and people wanted to sit and talk with me, I was soooo flattered. But then something great happened, I got busy and my time became more precious. What I did was create a paid product that was called “pick my brain session.” That worked great because it attracted those who were serious business owners and invested in their business while at the same time, repelling freebie seekers and tire kickers.

My business has changed over the years and now that I have more time, I offer different options.

First, I provide a Clarity Call for those interested in my mastermind program. This gives people a chance to get value and me the opportunity to get feedback.

Second, if the question can be answered in 15 minutes or less, I give them a link to schedule a call and I offer that twice a month.

Third, if they are a student in one of my online programs and want 1:1 help, I direct them to fill out an online form (aka jump through some hoops) and then they can schedule a 30-minute call.

Fourth, if someone doesn’t want to apply for a mastermind, not a student, has a problem that’s longer than 15 minutes and they want to just pay me for an hour, I give them that option as well.

If someone has a quick question, I don’t mind helping them out as long as it’s not a repeat offender (I know who you are). If they go through the trouble to fill out a form and follow directions, I don’t mind sitting for 30 minutes with a student. But if it’s someone who wants free coaching advice, they will have to pay a premium.

Here’s a starter sentence you can try:

“We are trying to minimize the amount of time spent on one-off consultations as we continue to streamline [our training programs / masterminds / coaching programs]. During our team meeting today, we came up with a few alternatives that may work for you:”

Take back your time, you are worth it!

From Nicole: This is a great tool that will help you in your business, even if you are just starting and have no list or you’re a seasoned pro who is stuck in “doing it all herself” land.

In THREE minutes – less time than it takes to tie your shoes or pull on yoga pants, you’ll be on your way. Fill in this short quiz and, based on your answers, I’ll give you free systems to get started to get you back on track with what you need to work on first.

Sarah Santacroce
LinkedIn Consultant & Strategist

Coffee meetings… not my thing. Yes, of course I used to do them in the past, but not any more.

For virtual ‘pick your brain' calls I usually invite them to my monthly live webinar where I go through my system on how to get clients with LinkedIn. It's not a salesy webinar, nothing to buy on the call… except for an invitation to get on a ‘Clarity Call' with me. But wait, this is not just another ‘pick your brain' call 😉 I clearly explain on the webinar who this call is for (established business, 3k+ average customer value). This criteria helps me filter, because as an introvert energy management is crucial to me, and I simply can't talk to everyone.

For local coffee meeting invites I have come up with a brilliant solution as well. I just launched it which is why I'm so excited 🙂 I call it ‘Walk & Talk'. Instead of sitting down drinking coffee, I host a free intimate event where we go walking for 45 minutes and then end with a short & healthy lunch (which each attendee pays for themselves). This is a moment where everything is permitted and we learn about each other as whole human beings: life, passions, business, family, health etc. Spots are limited to 8 people. Feel free to start something similar in your city!

Marie Forleo

From Nicole: I found this awesome video that Marie Forleo did which pretty much gives all of the smart advice that I was thinking. How handy is that? And how awesome is she? 

Kelly McCausey

When someone asks if they can pick my brain and they're not a client, I say ‘Yes! You can ask me anything in my community – I'll give you a link to join in. I love answering questions there and bonus, you'll get input from all the smart people there too!”

Just thinking… it's different if we're socializing at an event, a little brain picking is welcome for the most part – especially if it flows both ways. I love chatting up topics of mutual interest over lunch or while hanging out between sessions. Great ideas for content often come through answering questions.

Candice L. Davis
Author Coach

The strict mom in me wants to say I don't let people pick my brain very much, but it's just not true. Just last weekend, I spent two hours at a coffee shop, letting a woman I met on Facebook pick my brain about the book she wants to write and how she can use it to build her platform. The truth is that I enjoy those connections when it feels like the person wants to build a relationship, and she was a pleasure to talk with. (I also gave her a coupon for one of my courses.)

I also continue to offer free consultation calls on a limited basis. Going by video is one way to eliminate people who are just looking to pick and run. Employing a pre-call questionnaire is a method I sometimes use to weed out people who aren't serious about their goal of becoming an author or using their books to create more impact and income. Rather than answer a few questions in writing, those people will usually go away. And I'll typically share at the top of the call that I'll be making an offer in the last five minutes–if I think we're a good fit.

Brian T. Edmondson

I handle this one on a case-by-case basis.

I have a lot of friends and peers in the industry who I'm always happy to chat with over the phone, Skype, or meet with in person to shoot the breeze and talk business. In some cases they'll want to meet up just to pick my brain (or just vent about clients!) or vice versa. In most cases we're on the same level playing field and it's a mutally beneficial relationship.

On the other side of that I do offer one-on-one coaching and work with private clients and do occasionally have people who are not paying customers or clients reach out to me for advice; this is usually through email.

If it's a quick and easy question to answer then I'll go ahead and answer the question. I'll also point out to a product I have related to the question or even suggest a one-on-one consult if they want to dig deeper. Answering a quick question through email doesn't take a lot of time and can lead to customer or client.

Now when it comes to doing an in-person meeting, the last thing I want to do is meet someone in person for the sole purpose of having my brain picked. I know for many people it can be difficult to turn someone down for a meeting, even if it's just for a “quick cup of coffee” without feeling like a jerk… but you have to value your time and even more importantly respect the fact that other people are paying you for your expertise.

Usually my response will look something like; “I appreciate your invite to get together for coffee but unfortunately I'm not able to make it. If you have a quick question go ahead and shoot it over and I'll be happy to answer.”

After they send over their question, I answer it then point them to additional paid ways they can dig deeper with me. This rarely happens, but if they really push for or insist on a meeting I gently point out to them that I have customers and clients who pay me for my time and advice and it would not be fair to them if I let others pick my brain for free.

Cindy Bidar
Marketing Strategist

I admit, I used to be really bad at deflecting or redirecting this question. I often found myself getting sucked into conversations on Facebook messenger or email that never seem to end. Each polite answer was met with more questions, and once you start answering, well… how can you stop?

Here's what I do to curb these now.

First, I know where I want people to go to get answers. I have free and paid Facebook groups as well as private coaching, so depending on the person and the question, I know exactly what to suggest.

I also keep ‘swipe' files on hand (you know, templates!) that say things like, “That's a really great question, and I bet others wonder the same thing. Would you mind starting a thread in [GROUP] and I'll answer you there.” That way I don't have to think about it too hard. I just copy, paste, and tweak.

Finally, it's true what they say. If one person has a question, dozens of others have the same question and just aren't asking. I like to use the “pick your brain” questions as starters for blog posts, emails, and other content. Then I can also redirect questions to those resources rather than continually answering the same questions again and again.

From Nicole: I love love love Cindy's marketing checklists.

Check them out here. (Save $10 with coupon code: 10)

Nicole Dean of .. here! .. says:

Like Amy above, I had a former hair stylist (and a few others who I will not mention here as it still gets me riled up) who would “pick my brain” WHILE I was paying them for THEIR services. (Note, I said “former” as well.) Obviously I found others who could do a great job while respecting that it was my time. Not theirs.

And, if I think of how much time and money I've invested in my business since I started it in 2004, how much I've accomplished, how much I've helped others to build their businesses in that time, then yes, I've earned the right to charge for my time.

My friends tease me because I avoid the business conversation to a ridiculous extent when it comes to strangers. In fact, on airplanes, I've been known to say “I sell life insurance. How's your death and dismemberment policy?”

That usually ends the conversation. Fast. I put my headphones back on and have my productivity back. Of course, I don't always do that, but I do when my gut says that I need to protect my boundaries with that person, or that I need the time for me.

However, I obviously can't do that with people who I know. Because…

  1. I have a relationship with them and care about them.
  2. They might actually NEED life insurance, and then what am I going to do?
  3. They can just Google me and find out I'm lying. 😉

So, with them, I have had a harder time finding my way.

In one way, I have it easy. I know the people that I serve are established business owners. They have a market, a website, and either have traffic (an audience) or a product created from expertise they've established in another area. That's where I make the biggest impact, which is where I want to live. For me AND for the people I help.

So that eliminates 99.99999% of the people who approach me.

If they are trying to build a business that is outside of my scope of expertise, obviously, that's easy to defer. I can either point them to someone else, or just state that I am not an expert in that area. Easy peasy.

If they are just starting to build their business and aren't quite to the stage where I specialize, I can refer them to read my blog, or my books, or to sign up for my newsletter first.  Or I'll email them some resources which are mainly affiliate links to friends who can better serve them. 🙂 That way, I am helping them to get started (by sharing ONLY the best) and my friends and I are making money.

Beyond that, I have programs in place where they CAN access me. And that's the next step.

My coaching program. I keep it affordable and I provide that option to anyone who wants to talk with me about their business. People usually contact me prior to signing up so I can make sure they are a great fit. If not, again, I'll refer them to someone else who is. My coaching program is my playground, so it's totally no pressure for me and it's fun. I accept only those who I find pure joy in working with (frequently people who've known me or of me for some time) and we get massive crap done.

The Beach House. Once or twice a year, I (along with Kelly McCausey) provide mastermind retreats at the beach for women to literally talk with me about their businesses in a room with other smart ladies. I, personally, am facilitating, so they get my input on their roadblocks – PLUS we make magic and memories and it's just freaking awesome!

However, if someone has a quick question, like “Hey Nicole, why did you switch to ConvertKit?” Then I'll answer it, and also post the response on my blog. I decide whether it would benefit that person to include their info in the post. If not, then I don't. If so, I ask them if I may and, if I get permission, I do.

I am now able to stand my ground because of one thing. Fairness.

Brian really hit on the important thing to me. My coaching clients are AWESOME. I love them! And they pay me for my time. It really isn't fair of me to give one-on-one time to everyone who approaches me, because I value my coaching clients and I truly love them. So, that is the motivation that I need to be able to have a healthy boundary in this instance.

YES. I want to help people. But it has to be in a way that's beneficial and in integrity to all.

Your Turn!

Please share your favorite response when someone asks if they can pick your brain.

Nicole Dean


I appreciate shares and I adore comments! Please share your thoughts.

  • Kelly

    I spot the curve in so many stories. When new, people seem really open and interested in having those ‘pick your brain’ chats. As time goes by and expertise grows, the demand gets high and you have to start creating boundaries.

    I love the different perspectives shared!

  • Steve

    I guess I have a little different approach: give everyone a little bit of my time. I want to build a relationship with anyone who goes to the effort of reaching out to me. I don’t want to give the impression that I will only help those that pay me. In order to help everyone, I have quite a selection of short reports (mostly pdf) that I give away on the subjects of the person’s question. These have links in them to my (or others) products so some sales can be generated this way. When I don’t have a report that directly or closely addresses their question (doesn’t happen very often), I tell the person I’m working on that one – then I go create the report, send it to them with a personal “thank you” and add it to my arsenal. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with saying “I can’t answer your question right now, but I will email you my thoughts tomorrow” (or Wednesday, or whatever – it will be no longer than a couple of days). I want the person to know and feel they aren’t being brushed off. In addition, I can always refer them to one of my blog posts (which I’ve carefully categorized so they’re easy to find) where I try to focus on answering questions I’ve received over the years. I feel like you need to show people you care about them by giving them some time and attention – not by asking them to pay you first. But that’s just me.

    • Nicole

      Excellent point, Steve. All of the awesome people in this post do offer tons and tons of free value through their content. So step one is to refer people to that.

      Beyond that, the “Can we have coffee every week while I pepper you with questions?” is the issue.

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