Your personal hero is coming to town to speak at a conference and you’re dying to pick her brain over cocktails. (Because you have oh so many questions.)
Or, maybe you just discovered an inspiring app designer and you’re fantasizing about working at his startup. (You’ve got the skills!)
Or, you noticed that your favorite author is releasing a new book and might be hunting for a new publicity and social media director. (Hello? You’d be perfect for the job!)
Bottom line: There’s always someone you’re dying to connect with—and that “someone” usually happens to be a busy, sought-after person who probably gets pummeled with requests, nonstop. So, you don’t even try, because why would he or she ever respond to your request?
Well, with the right strategy, you can get anyone’s attention.
Here’s a true story:
Years ago, I celebrated a major milestone: The grand opening of MEarth—a 10-acre native plant habitat and community garden. My team and I planned a big party to celebrate the grand opening and we pulled out all the stops. One catch, though. I wanted one of the most famous and sought-after environmental leaders and chefs in the world, Alice Waters there. Even though I knew she’d be tricky to reach, I simply had to try. And tell you what, trying worked!
Through that process, I learned four steps to follow when you want to get in touch with someone who’s notoriously busy.
1. Start With a Simple Email
While there are lots of great ways to write a simple email, I like to use my “just say yes” template.
Here’s the structure. Use the first sentence to introduce yourself. The next to explain how you found the person and why you’re writing. Then, make an enticing offer that’s hard to refuse. And finally, finish it with a simple yes or no request that doesn’t require much brainpower.
Note that final sentence is especially critical. It’s also the one sentence that most people bungle up. Basically, the key here is not to make your email recipient do any thinking, planning, or “mental work” whatsoever.
If you get the person’s consent to meet up for brunch, get on the phone, do an interview, or whatever you’re hoping to achieve, you can always hammer out the nitty-gritty details (time, place, duration) later.
I started my quest by emailing Alice’s assistant:
“Hello, my name is Ellen and I am Executive Director of MEarth, an eco-sanctuary where kids learn how to grow nourishing food, care for the planet, and eat well. Alice’s work at the Edible Schoolyard Project has been inspirational to our vision and growth. We’re having our grand opening on May 1 and we expect over 1,000 people to attend. We would be deeply honored if Alice could be there and share her wisdom and vision with our community. Would Alice be willing to speak at our event, later this year?”
2. Be Persistent, But Be Patient
This process has four steps, so you’ve probably figured out that the story doesn’t end with that email. In fact, it’s just the beginning of the process. As you might’ve guessed, I did not receive the answer I was hoping for.
“She’s insanely busy. Sorry, but no.”
I felt a little deflated—but I didn’t give up.
“Could I circle back to you in a few months, and see if her schedule has opened up?”
“Sure, but don’t hold your breath. Her calendar is just crazy.”
Opening doors is all about building relationships. And building a relationship takes time and determination. As psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth describes in her TED talk, grit is one of the best predictors of success. So, now’s the time to put your grit to work and get ready for the long haul.
I kept my eye on the prize and didn’t give up after the first “no”—or the second, or the third. With that said, I continued to space out my requests and ask them politely, which resulted in a response every time.
3. Befriend the Gatekeeper
This is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard often, and for good reason. More often than not, busy people have assistants to screen calls and requests. Befriending that person, in a professional yet friendly way, can be the key to your success.
Accordingly, I didn’t try to pitch Alice directly. I started by connecting with her “gatekeeper”—a.k.a., her assistant.
I’d check in periodically, leave a voicemail or two, joke around with him, and offer praise and encouragement for the work he was doing. And by doing that, I got to know him as a human being.
Finally, one day, he gave me the “in” I’d been waiting for.
“You know,” he said, “If you really want to capture Alice’s heart, send her something in the mail. She loves beautiful things. I can’t promise she’ll come to your event, but whatever you send—I’ll make sure she sees it.”
My heart leapt with hope—and I leapt at the opportunity.
4. Go Above and Beyond
Busy people—whether they’re investors, mentors, influential writers, speakers, bloggers, or celebrity figures—get dozens of dull, un-original pitches every day.
A little beauty, emotion, originality—and humanity—can go a long way.
When Alice’s assistant revealed that little “secret,” I gave it everything I had.
Following his lead, I quickly put together a beautiful packet all about MEarth with photos of the garden, the kids we serve, the crops we grow, and the food we made. I personally thanked Alice in my hand-written letter—praising her as the lead inspiration behind the whole project. I told her about the upcoming party, and how we were dying to feature her as our keynote speaker. And I tied the whole thing up with a beautiful bow (literally).
I popped the parcel into the mail, along with a personal ‘thank you’ note for her assistant, as well.
And one day, she called.
Seeing my personal hero take the stage was an incredible experience for me—one that I’ll never forget. Best of all, it taught the four steps above—four steps that I’ve used again and again to get it touch with people. You often don’t get what you want on the first try—but persistence and perseverance can help you unlock doors that are blocking your way.