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Advice / Job Search / Networking

Important People Don't Want a Cup of Coffee. Here's What to Ask for Instead

“It’s the absolute worst sales technique you can do. These guys were billionaires. Do you think they really needed a cup of coffee?”

In a fascinating talk, James Altucher explains that he used a terrible strategy when he compiled a list of 20 personal business heroes and asked them via email if he could buy them a cup of coffee and have 20 minutes of their time.

He facetiously explains that he expected them to say, “Hold everything! James Altucher is going to buy me a cup of coffee. I’ve never heard of this guy at all, and I’m going to go downstairs right now and have a cup of coffee with him. Stop the whole business.”

Similarly, Ted Rubin makes it clear on his blog post that you should never ask people if you can pick their brain.

Think about the phrase for a second—pick their brain—that’s about as invasive as it gets. It’s actually quite creepy! I can’t help but think of the ancient Egyptian mummification process, in which they would pick your brain through your nose, piece by piece. (You were already dead during this process, thankfully.)

Remember that successful people are busy, and they view their time as their greatest asset. A cup of coffee is a poor return on their investment. If they spend 20 minutes with you, they’re spending 20 minutes away from their family, 20 minutes away from their business, and 20 minutes away from a million other possibilities. Even if they genuinely want to help, they can’t possibly say yes to everyone who invites them out to a cup of coffee (or a creepy brain picking session). As Warren Buffett puts it, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

So, the question is: How do you create a win-win situation? How can you get the opportunity to soak up the knowledge and wisdom of incredible people in your field, all the while giving them a high return on their investment of their greatest asset: their time?

Here’s an idea that’s worked for me: a podcast interview.

Why Podcasting Works

I’ll be the first to tell you that podcasting isn’t for everyone. I’ll also be the first to tell you that podcasting takes a lot of hard work (though that’s true of anything worthwhile).

But sitting down with someone and interviewing them for a podcast is incredibly valuable. In fact, it’s a win-win-win situation because there are three parties involved:

1. You

If someone agrees to an interview, you now get to have a one-on-one conversation with him or her. Maybe it’s 20 minutes. Maybe it’s 30 minutes. Maybe it’s an hour. Regardless of the amount of time, you get to ask questions about this person’s background, struggles, and successes, plus ask for advice. How cool is that? (And it’s free. Some business coaches charge $500 an hour!)

Not only do you gain priceless insight from your interview, but you’re laying the foundation for a personal relationship. A tweet and an email can easily be lost in the noise. A one-on-one conversation is difficult to forget, especially when the other person gets to talk about him- or herself the whole time.

2. Your Guest

If you can feature a successful businessperson or entrepreneur on a podcast and promote it to your network (and even beyond), this is great exposure. Perhaps this person has a new book he’s promoting. Perhaps her business is launching a new product. Perhaps his service-oriented company is expanding. Whatever the case may be, the free exposure can be an exponentially greater return on someone’s investment than a $2 cup of coffee.

3. Your Audience

Don’t forget about this one! A well-done podcast offering encouragement, inspiration, and actionable advice can benefit dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people. Just remember: Your audience is taking time out of their busy schedule to listen your podcast. That’s quite a privilege. They’re never getting that time back, so honor them by giving a return on their investment.

Now What?

So you’ve decided this is a good idea—now what?

I’ve run a podcast for about eight months now, and I’ve interviewed more than 50 people. My business partner and I started from scratch and—time and time again—we’ve been pleasantly surprised (pleasantly shocked is more like it) by the generosity of leaders in our field, as well as the other bloggers, podcasters, and publishers we’ve connected with.

That said, it’s not all fun and games. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

Be Consistent

It will help you become a reliable authority. I recommend releasing one episode per week. If you’re highly ambitious, you can release three episodes per week, but trust me: That’s easier said than done. There isn’t a magical day of the week—Monday isn’t better than Thursday—the key is to pick a day of the week and own that day. Become a reliable source for your audience and train them to know when they can expect a new episode.

Streamline the Format

Imagine your favorite show was 15 minutes long one week, two hours long the next week, and 37 minutes long the following week. You would probably be confused and frustrated! It would be difficult to plan your life around such an arbitrary schedule, even with all of our fancy streaming and recording tools. Plus, the people you interview will want to know exactly how much time you will need. It’s your call, but a 30-45 minute interview is probably the right amount of time if you’re bringing on guests.

Ask Nicely

When pitching to potential guests, start by building a relationship with them on social media. Almost all of my guests started with a tweet. Sometimes I compliment their blog post, sometimes I tell them I loved their book (I’m always genuine when doing this). After you get the ball rolling with the Twitter conversation, move to old-fashioned email and ask them to be on your show. Keep this email as short as possible, of course. Remember, they’re busy and they definitely don’t have time to read a novel-sized email (which can easily happen when you get nervous and excited).

After you get a few guests under your belt, the pitching process becomes easier. You build a bit of a portfolio, which is great for sharing with potential guests. Many of them may think, “Well if this interview was worth so-and-so’s time, it should be worth my time too.”

Be a Great Interviewer

Just like you’d do if you were sitting someone down over coffee, do your prep work. Research the person you’ll be talking to, practice your public speaking skills, and draft up great questions ahead of time. What to ask? If you’re bringing industry experts on your show, ask about their industry. Ask for tips, mistakes to avoid, and personal stories about their background. Think of Jimmy Fallon or Conan O’Brien. They’re always looking for more than the celebrity’s upcoming film. They’re looking for funny “behind the scenes” stories.

If you’ve ever said, “I’d like to buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain,” don’t feel guilty. I’ve made this rookie mistake, myself. I even tweeted a similar question to Gary Vaynerchuk once. (He responded and very kindly explained that time was the one thing he couldn’t spare.)

But do get creative—and look for other ways to get that career-boosting advice you need.

Photo of coffee courtesy of Shutterstock.