How To Respond To The "Can I Pick Your Brain" Question
How To Respond To The “Pick My Brain” Question
How To Respond To The “Pick My Brain” Question

A friend and fellow digital marketing consultant asked recently how I would respond to the presumptuous question all consultants get asked: “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain a bit?” It’s one of those questions that you dread being asked because you know there’s little to no intention to pay you for your expertise behind it. Still, most anyone with a degree of expertise in this or any field gets asked the question once or twice a week or more.

I’m asked the “pick your brain” question about twice a day. Most of the time it’s subtle via email or a private message on LinkedIn or Facebook. I have a bit of an advantage over others in that I can respond with, “I actually built a website just for that! Subscribe to and you can pick my brain, as well as the brains of several other digital marketing experts, all you want.”

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London
Image via Wikipedia

Perhaps I could be a bit more graceful in that response, but it’s honest and not intended to be condescending. I’m not a non-profit and the advice and counsel I give commands a nice investment from my clients. Why would anyone think I would give it away?

Mind you, I’ll answer anyone’s questions. I’m friendly and affable. I don’t refuse to engage with people without a dollar attached to the conversation. But I will often provide quick, general answers that encourage them to explore deeper explanations on ESM or elsewhere.

But for those of you who don’t have an on-call consultancy website where people can ask you questions all the time, here’s what I would recommend you say in response to the “pick your brain” question:

Sounds like we could work together on this. My work schedule is tight so lunch/coffee is typically not do-able. Why don’t we get a deliverables or hours need from you, I can wrap some thought around an estimate and we can schedule a working session?

That response seems to work. It’s polite, professional and directs them to the understanding that you don’t work for free without you coming off as a money-grubbing scum bag. They can respond by saying, “Okay! Here’s what I’m thinking …” or “Oh. I was hoping to just have a conversation, not hire you.” If they respond with the latter, you simply respond with, “While I certainly appreciate you asking, I charge for my time and expertise. If you change your mind, let me know.” And the conversation is over.

How do you respond to those types of inquiries? Have you ever asked to pick someone’s brain? Is it rude of someone to say, “I’m not free?” The comments, as always, are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at
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  • Nice. I just saw this doing a search because I was writing an article about my issues with this. It seems to be happening to me more and more lately. I think I’ll be using that response :)

  • No time

    This was helpful for me to use in wording a response to someone new to my industry -people new to a business assume one is struggling just because they’ve never heard of the provider before. I admit that it threw me that he wanted to pick my brain over coffee but I realized he just didn’t know. I stopped doing lunch or dinner freebies 16 years ago. These days I’m so backed up that I’m not scheduling anyone sooner than October so why would I spend an hour telling him stuff when I couldn’t even take his job within the time frame he has in mind? Other than that I can buy my own coffee of course.

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  • Jason: I come across such requests a lot and I’m always surprised that how people don’t realize that we as service providers, coaches, consultants, invest a lot of time and money to acquire the knowledge (reading books, attending conferences, taking training, creating free content like blogs and reports etc all) that they just valued as a cup of coffee. Anyways, in the day and age of information being the king yet being pretty vulnerable for the abundance of me-too gurus, this is a challenge we all are facing. I actually named my 1-hr sessions “I need coffee” and I deal such requests with a simple reply – 

    Thanks for reaching out and congratulations on taking the first step towards your business. If you have any questions about startup or entrepreneurship, feel free to send it to me and I’d consider writing an article on that topic so that everyone including you gets the answer and help. If you want to chat with me, I host a FREE biweekly video call (limited to 4 person/ call) which you can sign up at for next available spot.

    If you want me to work with you on your business idea/ plan one-on-one, here is all the details to engage me for your business – I highly recommend starting with the “I need coffee” session. This is an exploratory session which you can use to clear the fog around your business idea, or get some information on starting your business on the side, or have me review your business plan…whatever you need – I’ll be all yours for one hour! This session also serves as a platform to see if we have a win-win fit to work with each other.

    Good luck with your venture!

  • Great perspective Jason. I have been looking for a good way to have this conversation with people that reach out to me because they trust me.  I really need to explore more options for myself when it comes to billing for my time and expertise.  You gave me some things to consider and evaluate, so the trust stays and the relationship continues stronger. I value you that alot!  Thanks Jason.  

  • I like the way you handle requests. It can be tricky when it’s friends, not associates.

    One friend offered to buy me lunch if I went with her to pick out lighting and furniture for her home office. (She wanted to shop at a place an hour away.)  I gave her a response similar to yours and she wasn’t thrilled with the answer, but she understood it.

    I’m always happy to offer a short response to an e-mail or some quick advice, but when someone wants free consulting and asks for it often, that crosses the line. it’s a matter of one person respecting another’s time and expertise.

    Maybe next time someone asks for a free consultation, I’ll forward a link to this post. :)

  • I like your approach, Jason. I get a steady flow of requests to pick my brain, too, and I am amazed how some people lash out when they don’t get free consulting.

    I steer them to a page where they can submit a question to me, and I will answer it when I get around to it on my blog. They have the option to book phone consulting if they have an urgent question.

    I wonder how often people walk into a law firm or accountant to pick their brain.

    Speaking of which, I get people once in a while that complain that I am charging more than their lawyer. My response is to ask their lawyer how to fix the problem they’re trying to get me to fix.

  • As a coach, I tend to refer general questions to my blog where I’ve answered a good many of them. (Or other resources, using the LMGTFY paradigm…)

    In my case, as with many other coaches, the real work is in long-form (30-60 min) one-on-one conversations when I work with a client to unpack the details of their own personal situation. Coffee /lunch and general conversation generally isn’t going to be a full-scale coaching appointment.

    That being said, it’s important to keep the energy flow balanced, in terms of the “sidedness” of the conversation. In a coaching appointment, I’m deeply “there” or “present” for the client – it’s a different kind of listening, and the energy is flowing in their direction by mutual choice. In a more casual or social interaction, it will be less intense an energy investment on my part.

  • I got fired up when I read this, as this has been an ongoing issue with my company. Although, the hourly is nowhere near your rate, I still think the principle holds true for any consultant. Thank you for addressing this.

  • Anonymous

    Whatever happened to the adage that ‘time is money’ and why are people quite shy in admitting that they live by this saying?  I guess, we’re now in the age of freebie, where everything is shared free so long as you know how to ask for it.  Still, with the idea of ‘free’ comes the question of devaluing what you’re really worth.  I’m copying your response here for me to tweak for my own so I know how to deal with this ‘pick your brain’ scenario.  I love the brevity!

  • Great advice, Jason! I’ve blogged about the pick your brain thing, but mostly just vented. I love your canned responses. I’m using them next time this happens (probably sooner rather than later, unfortunately!).


  • Great topic, Jason. I have mixed feelings about being asked. 

    I think when you’re just starting out, it can be a great way for decision makers to have an opportunity to get to know you and for you to sell yourself. I’ve landed numerous large contracts from having my brain picked.

    That being said, the more successful a person gets, the less time she has and the more well known her reputation. This translates into less of a need for those get-to-know-you coffees.

    Finally, I’ve always felt a very strong need to pay it forward. What I mean is that I think it’s important to take a little time periodically to meet with someone who needs something from me and from whom I expect nothing in return. Karma, baby.

  • Love it. I’m a trusting sort (ok – I’m a sucker for the word “please” and 1 line of flattery) and I find myself agreeing to this type of arrangement more often than I’d like to admit.  In one recent case, another so-called social media person (who uses a Dr. in front of his name, which really brings the douche) grilled me about my company’s business model, our fee structure, our content plan etc. About halfway through, I saw past the Fisher Price stethoscope and realized I should shut the hell up. He’d approached me at a workshop I facilitated and lured me in with the promise of future partnership opportunities. I learned my lesson, and took my “medicine”.
    However, I still think, as you say, that it’s important to be gracious, cordial, and firm. Thanks for reiterating the cool and collected way to deal with a thought picker.

  • marc1919

    I really gravitate to this particular issue. This is my favorite post on this topic: I have taken this to heart at the same time I meet and talk to individuals that have no intention of paying me for my expertise or even understanding that they should consider paying for it all. I spend a lot of time with emerging startup companies that are consistently in desperate need of advice, and have no money to pay for it. I personally get a ‘psychological profit’ from helping startups see their problems from a different perspective, but I know that there is very little chance that they will pay me directly for it. Taking those one hour coffees is one way I build my personal brand and thought leadership, but I do it knowing (through deep and painful experience) that it can’t ever be my main source of income.

  • Anonymous

    You work hard at engaging people and sharing knowledge in order to build your business. When I’ve seen you at speaking engagements, you make it a point to be available and participate with attendees. To me, this builds credibility so I would be fine when you outline the scope and investment.

    Many of the responses concerning a recorded overview webinar and “ask a question” give a great way of showing your style and service to those who haven’t seen you speak – especially at 8:30am.

    Thanks for sharing and starting a good dialog. 

    • Thanks for the validation, Don. Good to hear from someone who’s seen/heard

    • Thanks for the validation, Don. Good to hear from someone who’s seen/heard

  • Anonymous

    You work hard at engaging people and sharing knowledge in order to build your business. When I’ve seen you at speaking engagements, you make it a point to be available and participate with attendees. To me, this builds credibility so I would be fine when you outline the scope and investment.

    Many of the responses concerning a recorded overview webinar and “ask a question” give a great way of showing your style and service to those who haven’t seen you speak – especially at 8:30am.

    Thanks for sharing and starting a good dialog. 

  • Fantastic answer. Mine from here on :>)

    • Wowzer. Thanks, B.L. Appreciate you swinging by.

  • Great answer, Jason.  As a consumer of media AND a producer of media I understand that there is a line between giving your secret sauce away and remaining accessible to the masses. The thing I love about social media (esp. Twitter) is that commoners, like myself, have access to industry pros, big brands, celebrities and people who are not geographically close to me.  

    For example, I attended a webinar hosted by Frank Eliason on social CRM.  I had a few lingering questions and I wanted to hear his perspective as he is THE pioneer in sCRM.  I tweeted to him thinking it was a shot in the dark and that I’d probably never hear back.  To my surprise… He tweeted back to me within the hour!  I’m sure he was bombarded with questions and comments as the webinar had a few hundred attendees.  However, just the fact that he took the time out to tell me thanks for attending and that he was glad I enjoyed it made me feel special.  But that was not all.  We corresponded back and forth a few times, and then moved to DMs.  All my questions were answered and he even introduced me (via Twitter) to another sCRM pro who was able to chat with me as well.

    • Thanks, Leah. I like to think of it this way: If Malcolm Gladwell were on Twitter or responded to blog posts and I could get his attention for a second or two, I’d engage with him a lot because I think the world of his wisdom and insights. But I’d respect his time and the fact I can’t ask for too much. While I’m no Malcolm Gladwell, on a much smaller scale, that’s what I hope others consider when asking the same of me. I am happy to interact, answer, etc., if I have a moment, the topic isn’t deep, etc. But asking too much means a different level of engagement. 

      Frank did that with you. He had a moment, it was important to him to follow up to keep that realism to his presence online, etc. And it made an impression. But if you called to get him on the phone for a half-hour talk, you might not be as successful. (Though knowing Frank, he’d probably take the call. He’s not a consultant per say, so he approaches it differently.)

      Thanks for sharing!

      • I think it’s all about expectations. You’re right, Jason – sometimes, folks just ask for too much off the bat. @twitter-23102294:disqus ‘s approach worked because she asked a question with no strings attached. People that come out of the blue asking for a 30 minutes or even an hour of your time are a completely different story. It’s all a matter of the time involved. 

  • Thank you Jason for sharing your view on this very timely post for me.  Scheduling a working session for pay on this media is almost — if not often — impossible after all there is Google, Wikipedia where folks are able to receive answers to their questions at no charge.  Building a reputation online where an expert in any particular field is key to saying “I’m not free!” and being OK with that response.

  • It’s a dangerous question agreed and I get it a lot from people, especially being part of lots of networking groups in my area. I have recently set up a “ask a question” section on our website and try and direct people there, especially useful if you are speaking to people online!


    • Love the ask a question approach. Another good way to do it and get something in return! Good thinking.

  • Thanks–this was very timely reminder for me. My problem is email–people constantly sending me emails with questions they could get the answers to if they would dig a little. I used to think I had to dig up all these answers cuz after all, it’s just email. Ugh. I had to change that last year and respond, “here’s a link to Wikipedia. I think you’ll understand it much better by looking it up yourself.” I also just started telling people I simply don’t have time, and directing them elsewhere. I,also, don’t “do coffee or lunch” in those situations. But…I learned the hard way.  

    • Yeah, the emails get old fast. I send nothing in a response but links for a while, but even that got frustrating. Now I delete a lot of stuff I used to respond to. Or I send them to the learning site with a polite ask to subscribe.

  • Stacey

    We have customers email us constantly, and every time we answer, they reply back with (without fail, too), “Ok, last question. I promise!” Sure it is, buddy. Sure, sure. I’m tired of the time vampires and the knowledge seekers who are too lazy to Google their questions.

    • Me too. I just think we cross the line into arrogance if we aren’t polite in return. Hopefully the quote I offered helps.

  • One of the best answers to this that I’ve seen.  I’ll be sharing this.

  • I think Justin Kownacki’s $200 lunch is the way to go: – it’s a tab on his blog. Similar to what you suggest. Love it!

    • Anonymous

      Justin’s is a bit of a turn off to me. If you don’t know him, you may think – “Who this guy, posting on the top of his blog about $200 lunches?” I like Jason’s personal response much better.

    • I can respect Justin’s blunt honesty…time is money!  But I do believe Jason’s is a bit more tactful.  However, perhaps these responses reflect their personal style…to each his own!

    • I like Justin’s response, too, but I think it crosses the line into being arrogant. I don’t every want to take for granted that someone thinks highly enough of my ideas and expertise to ask. Throwing back a response like, “Screw you, pay me!” is too prick-ish for me. (Not saying that’s what Justin’s recommendation was, but he’s more blunt and direct about it than me.) 

      I want to make sure the person knows that I’m still a nice guy, don’t mean to offend, etc., and am grateful for their asking, but that my time is valuable. Fair?

  • Waynej31
  • Loved your article Jason.Great post once again .
    You always are on the edge of thinking outside the box and very clever.
    Thanks for the share.

  • Love it! I’m a corporate recruiter and I often get the same kind of requests you describe. I’ve used “Have you checked out the articles on my Website?” and “No, I don’t drink coffee.” Some candidates are almost stalkers. They don’t want to pick my brain. They do want me to find them a job. I can sympathize with them but I don’t have to spend my time when it could be better used filling open job requisitions.

    • Tough gig you’ve got, Simon. For the seekers, it’s gotta be weird to say, “Sure I’ll help, but you have to pay me to do so.” But I’ve used a job coach before. You guys are worth every penny!

  • I often say that “can we grab coffee” are the four scariest words in the English language. It’s as if folks really think that they are offering you an opportunity to break away from the daily grind and experience a real Taster’s Choice moment of relaxation.

    I firmly believe that if you run a consultancy that taking those meetings are critical. Pouring into the lives of others always paying dividends in the long run. It’s makes you smarter, it provides a micro-platform for you to hone your expertise and share your perspective. But most importantly, it can help folks advance their own dreams and missions. If your counsel has an impact, you may play a role in something big. I take 5 or 6 meetings a day (including lunch and dinner, because I have to eat… but no coffee) – many of which are with people that have no intention of hiring my firm, but making those contributions and influencing the direction of those businesses has become a big part of our firm’s brand and has certainly contributed to our growth and continued success.

    A couple of tips that I find helpful are:

    a) Meet at your office (NO COFFEE SHOPS). It puts the ball in their court to swallow the travel time and prepare appropriately for a legitimate interaction.

    b) Schedule meetings well in advance. If someone is eager to connect with you, you don’t have to feel compelled to make it happen this week. Most of my meetings are scheduled 4-6 weeks in advance. This allows you to spread the load and gives the other party adequate time to prepare for the meeting.

    The long and short of it though is that it’s impossible to meet with every person that contacts you, but making a concerted effort to invest in others lives and businesses (even with no financial renumeration) can pay be dividends in the future.

    • Great tips, Kristian. Thanks for the added advice!

  • I struggle with being “nice” as so many of us do. So I created Project Brainstorm for hourly scenarios, with a four hour minimum that can be used in any way someone sees fit.  That said, it’s still challenging to let people to understand that we’ve all worked hard to acquire our skills and that there is an implied value to those skills or one wouldn’t be asking.  To those people who did understand and were happy to schedule a Project Brainstorm, I truly thank you!

  • I usually have a co-pay or itemized bill any time I want to solicit opinions from other professionals. 

    But I understand the need to build trust and rapport, etc. I’m far too guilty in being lenient and forgiving with my most precious resource: my time. Judicious application of filters or thresholds is certainly helping me achieve better balance.

    • Hard being a nice guy, ain’t it? Heh.

  • I actually volunteer to allow startups in mobile to pick my brain.  Since mobile is my speciality and you never know what opportunities will come up in the future, I’m happy to sit down with entrepreneurs over lunch or coffee and brainstorm around marketing, UX, and general strategy. I think it is generally known that anything beyond would require some type of arrangement (retainer or advisor for a piece of equity).  I benefit from these sessions as much as the people I’m meeting with by expanding my network, building my reputation, and most of all, getting out of my bubble and learning from how other people are thinking and doing. 

    • You know, Tamara, you’re right. It’s not a black and white issue. If you can get something in return from the person, I see no reason why a little tit-for-tat isn’t in order. Thanks for the perspective.

  • If I can respond to a question in less than five minutes without a lot of thought involved, I just answer the inquiry and move on.   If it’s something that requires more time and in-depth thought, then I give a more basic generalized answer and suggest if they would like more information, I could do a service under my hourly freelance rate to review their site (since 9 out of 10 questions are “help me with my blog” related) and give them customized feedback.  Basically, enough info so they know I know what I’m talking about and a nice lead in so they know they’re not getting a free review.  

    Nice idea about the membership site!

    • Good approach, Kristi. I guess I have the same response. I try not to be a total jackass and not answer at all. But if it requires thought or time, I have to push them to a commitment. It’s a balancing act, like everything else.

  • I must use that next time I get Brain Picker, which are many.

    • Happy to help, Calvin. Thanks for swinging by.

  • This is a great question. Any consultant or service-based business that trades time for dollars has definitely encountered this, I’m sure.

    Although I tend to work on strategy and larger projects for clients, I recently introduced an few hourly consulting packages that folks can buy online. That way, I can point people to this when I get asked to “pick my brain”. This seems to work well.

    It is a delicate balance though. I encourage people to ask me questions through me emails, on my blog and on social channels. I really do want to create a dialogue and answer their questions. And oftentimes, I’ll use questions I get as fodder for blog posts or future emails. But, when it starts to go much beyond that where people continue to pepper me with questions or want to take an hour of my time, I refer them to the hourly consulting. I think it’s all about determining where that line in the sand is.

    I think the funny thing is that we all tend to recoil and perhaps get a bit resentful when we get asked this. However, I’m sure we were all in the same boat at one point. We were likely encouraged to seek a mentor or buy someone lunch to get some advice. I know I’ve done it. Laura Roeder wrote a fantastic blog post for Copyblogger a while back about this. Her post offers some fantastic advice about how to handle this situation with grace. It definitely helped reframe my thinking on this. After all, it should be flattering that people are coming to us in the first place, right?

    • You’re right, Laura. The balance for me is tough. I want to be helpful and useful to folks, but also know that if I’m not billing time, I’m wasting time when it comes to supporting my family, etc. I’m blessed to be in a position where people want to pick my brain and I know that. Thanks for reminding me, though.

  • I hate that question so much because I feel guilty saying no. I actually ran an overview webinar about social media so every time someone asks I direct them to the recording first. It’s helpful not only for the brain pickers but for potential clients who want to know a bit more about you.

  • Great post Jason !

    I find that its all about the venue.  When I get the “ let get together up for discussion at a coffee shop” at best they will pay for coffee.

    Therefore, I always set up the initial “scoping meeting in your boardroom where we can call in the correct people in to understand what your company wants to achieve”.

    This immediately set the level from casual chat to professional.

    • Good approach, Liron. Thanks for the thought.

  • Denis Barnard

    I was once contacted by a consultancy who’d been hired to do some research in the field in which I operate, on the basis that “I was the guy who knew all the answers”. I said yes I was, and asked what they wanted, which turned out to be an appreciation of various facets of the current market. At which point I said: “Gentlemen, there comes a time when every expert needs to monetise his knowledge. That moment is now”. In the end, we agreed on a one hour call for which I asked one day’s consultancy pay.
    At the end of the call, I asked if they felt they had got value. Yes, they had, they said enthusiastically and saved themselves several weeks’ of work. Job done.

  • Greg Linnemanstons

    Thanks, Jason. I love your response! I think it’s polite, professional, and very clear.

  • Lisa Horner

    Love this Jason. Note that a lot of companies do want to pay for this type of ‘pick your brain advice’. They need help and could not spend their money better than to talk to people that have insight and a point of view. There’s nothing wrong with monetizing your intelligence ;)

  • Excellent advice Jason.  I normally respond by saying thanks, for the inquiry.  Here’s what I think will work to solve your problem.  We need to do…. and my best guess is that it will require us x number of hours.  My rate is… and so I am guessing it will cost around X.  I also try to give a results we should see from the work so that it isn’t just a sales pitch but also setting the expectations up front with them.

    Most never even respond, but those who do are responding to hire and usually ask, “How do we get started?”  Makes my life easier and helps to sustain my business.

    • Well said, Jeremy. And good for you for recognizing it.


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