People who want to pick your brains really want to pick your pockets

“Ooh, you’re a <insert profession here>? Excellent! Can I buy you a coffee and pick your brains?” 

Smiling Coffee

Your time and expertise are worth more than the price of a coffee.

How many times have you heard that? If you’re in a similar industry to me, I’ll wager you’ve heard it more than once. And I’ll also wager that after the first time or two, your heart sinks.

Because people who want to “pick your brains” really want to pick your pockets. (No, that’s not my clever quote. And no, I’ve no idea where it came from. Possibly Joe Polish…)

And although they probably don’t mean to, people who ask you questions like that are showing you just how little they value your skills, experience, and expertise.

“Excuse me? The contents of my brain – my entire life and business experience to date – is worth a measly cup of coffee? Hahahahahahahaaa! Nope.”

But you don’t want to say that, even if you’re thinking it (and let’s be honest, you are thinking something like that, aren’t you?) because you don’t want to upset anyone.

In particular, you don’t want to upset your own view of yourself as a kind, generous, giving person. I know, I know. Because I’m a people pleaser too. I’m in recovery, and I’m embracing the lost art of not giving a fuck, but still. It’s tough. In my head I’m aspiring to be the kind of loving, giving person who swans through life helping everyone everywhere for free.

But there’s a couple of problems with that.

  1. People don’t value free. Just look at the flagrant disregard for GP appointments shown by so many people.
  2. I’m not Santa Claus. I can’t travel the world in mere minutes, laughing in the face of physics.
  3. You can’t help people who aren’t willing to help themselves (and most people have no interest in helping themselves).
  4. Not everyone really wants help. They just want validation.
  5. My mortgage company won’t accept gratitude as payment, the selfish bastards.
  6. I’d selfishly like to have a fun life, too.
  7. I don’t want to resent everyone in the world ever.

So, what to do? When someone utters the dreaded words, “May I pick your brains?” Well, you’ve got a few options, ranging from the somewhat abrasive but to the point, “Fuck no!” to the doormattish “Absolutely, let me just bend over.”

Let’s ignore the extremes, because they’re not helpful, and have a look at how you can deal with this sticky situation (and it is a sticky situation, because the brain picker has put you in an awkward position and made you feel like shit. Which is why “fuck no!” isn’t such a bad option after all).

I reckon you’ve got three reasonable and profitable and helpful options:

  1. “Sure! Let me get you booked in for a consultation. I’ll send you a link to my payment page, which will let you book a slot in my calendar.” Simply acting as if your advice were paid-for was never in question is a great tactic because your brain picker will either pay up gladly and use your advice, or make some excuse and never darken your door again.
  2. Send them some information you’ve already written. I’m a big fan of sending people a copy of my book, or linking a blog post I’ve written previously, or something. Always make sure there’s a CTA at the end though, where they can pay you for anything further.
  3. This is my favourite: turn their question into content. I reply to every email I get personally, but I rarely answer questions that require deeper expertise privately. Instead, I create a podcast out of them, or write a daily email about them, or write a blog post or an article. That way, everyone gets the benefit of the answer and I get content I can use to drive sales.

The bottom line is: your paying customers are paying you for your skills and expertise and experience. How are they going to feel about you giving it away for free to every freeloading brain-picker out there?

Not good. Not good at all.

And remember: there’s an art to answering questions for free. Give away the what and the why… but save the “how” for your paying clients.

I give away an awful lot of what and why. If you’d like a bunch of “how”, too, buy a copy of Business For Superheroes here.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

PS Have you considered this: if you get a lot of brain pickers, is it because you’re not offering what they need as a paid-for service? If you’re not – create it immediately and start selling it! And if you’re not sure where to start or how to start, guess what? Business For Superheroes can help.

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