How To Get The Best From A Busy Person: Ten Top Tips

There are lots of good reasons for getting in touch with someone you know by reputation, or perhaps from a passing contact on social media or (in pre- and, I hope, post-pandemic days) at a conference or other event. Maybe you want that person to come and speak at your institution. You could be researching elites. You might want to ask for specialist advice. These kinds of reasons are entirely legitimate. However, a good reason alone isn’t enough; you also need to handle the interaction effectively. Here are ten top tips to help you get the best out of your encounter.

  1. Be aware that the person you are contacting will be very, very busy. They already work more than full time and they get many requests from people like you.
  2. Do your homework. Do not ask the person a question you could find the answer to by using a search engine or searching the person’s own website or blog. Check out all of the existing resources online, thoroughly, before you make contact.
  3. Find out how the person prefers to be communicated with, then communicate that way. Some people love email; others hate it. Some like private messages on social media; some don’t. You will have your own preferences but, to get the best out of a busy person, use the method they prefer.
  4. Keep communication brief. If this is difficult, write the long version for yourself, then cut it down to the bones before sending.
  5. Don’t expect a speedy reply. If you haven’t heard anything within a week or two, send a short polite enquiry to check they received your initial message. If this is by email, forward the original beneath your new enquiry, to save them hunting.
  6. Be clear about what you want, and make that clear to the person you are contacting.
  7. Be clear about what you can offer. For example, if you want to invite someone to speak at your institution, make sure you clarify the terms of the invitation: who they would be speaking to, in what context, whether a fee is available, whether expenses can be paid, and so on.
  8. Don’t say ‘I see you have written a book on X so I wanted to ask for your help with X’. Read the book first, then get in touch with the author if you have unanswered questions.
  9. Make sure your request is realistic, which usually means short and one-off. A busy person is not going to provide individual mentoring support, spearhead your social justice campaign, or write your thesis or dissertation for you.
  10. Understand that busy people have to say ‘no’ much more often than ‘yes’, because there are limits to everyone’s time and energy – and be prepared to accept the answer ‘no’.

This post was inspired by the increasing number of inappropriate and/or badly handled approaches I receive. However, it is not intended to be entirely off-putting. If you have a reasonable request which you can communicate effectively, I would be happy to hear from you.

[This post struck quite the chord and led to some follow-on posts: one on the art of the “cold-call” email from the Thesis Whisperer, one on asking to share from the Research Whisperer, and one on the care in requests from the Wellbeing Whisperer.]

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13 thoughts on “How To Get The Best From A Busy Person: Ten Top Tips

  1. My top tip is to find a common link. The best is if you know someone they know. LinkedIn is handy for that. On occasion I have gone through a chain of people to be introduced to someone.This has gotten me help from many people, as well as free lunches and dinners at interesting places around the world, such as High Table at Trinity College Cambridge: http://tomw.net.au/nt/uk.html

    It also helps to offer something. You can offer them a chance to have a chat with people. Many important people get tired of giving the same speech over and over again and would like to chat with some “normal” people. For years I ran a regular IT event where anyone who happened to be in two to speak had the chance to sit in a bar and chat. They loved it. https://www.tomw.net.au/irc/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tom. You sound like an ace networker! For me, real-life chats are way better than the online kind. My heart sinks when I get an email from someone I don’t know, asking for a Zoom or Skype chat. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in a bar and chat with people again. The last time was over 15 months ago…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Regrettably, I have hardened my heart and now routinely delete LinkedIn connection requests from people I don’t know and who can’t be bothered offering an explanation as to why I might want to know them.

        On a more positive note, this week I got to go to a conference dinner in Canberra, with people from all over Australia. It was wonderful to be talking to people face to face, and I got to do some useful networking to advance a project. But the downside was a few days later, with a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney. I had been in a room for hours with dozens of people from there. Hopefully my fist jab six weeks ago has provided some protection …

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great topic and discussion here. I’d also suggest that it helps to keep the communication focused and short. When I was teaching/supervising/managing at university full time, I’d receive incoming mail every hour of every day. If I received an email that was long and detailed, basically chatty, with the key points buried somewhere in a page of text, my heart would sink. I needed to know very quickly and in a few (warmly expressed) words the reason for the question or request.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Asking to share – The Research Whisperer

  4. Pingback: Asking to share - edu blogs

  5. Pingback: The art of the 'cold call' email - edu blogs

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