| March 26, 2015

Money & Career, Networking

How to Contact a Busy Person

vintage illustration busy boss at desk taking notes on phone

Let’s get straight to the point, shall we?

Busy people can be incredibly difficult to connect with.

You know the drill. You send an email, then you wait. And wait. And wait some more. You get no reply, so you try again. More of the same. Eventually, you give up.

If this sounds familiar, well, you’re not alone. Most men have struggled, at some point in their career, to try to connect with someone who is incredibly busy. Whether it’s a potential employer, a possible mentor, a dream client, or even just to connect with a girl so you can ask her out on a date, contacting a busy person can be very difficult.

Does that mean you give up? Heck no. Often, there is a good reason why busy people are so busy. Namely, it is because they are successful, and they’re successful because they are smart and well-connected and have access to resources or knowledge that might make all the difference in the world to you…if you can just break through.

But if you’re like most men, you’ve struggled with trying to figure out how to go about making that contact. How can you get the person’s attention? What should you say and how do you say it? Where do you even start? Should you follow-up if they ignore you? And new means of communication in the form of social media, Skype, text messaging, and blog commenting has made this issue even more confusing and challenging.

Throughout my career, I’ve tested just about every different approach for contacting busy people. I’ve also spent the past 2+ years reaching out to very busy entrepreneurs and authors to appear as guests on my podcast. I’ve tried techniques that work like a charm and other strategies that are guaranteed to bomb. Below, I include the best of what has worked for me.

Art of Manliness has previously covered how to write an email that will get a response. In this article, however, I want to share more of an overarching approach which can be (and often is) implemented using email, but which is also medium-agnostic. Email is what I’ve used the most and is still an effective vehicle. However, you should also consider other approaches such as face-to-face and social media where appropriate. To contact AoM’s reclusive McKays, you’ll even need to be willing to write a good old-fashioned letter! (Word is if they start getting too much snail mail to handle, they’re going to move to requiring messages by homing pigeon.)

Although it can feel like a daunting task trying to connect with a busy person, the rewards when you succeed can often be game-changing. You just have to be smart about how you make your first move.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

At the outset, you must understand that busy people get hundreds, if not thousands, of requests for help, aide, or resources every week. Not surprisingly, a large portion of them look and sound exactly the same. “Can you help me?” “Can I pick your brain?” “I’ve got an awesome idea that I know you’re gonna love!”

Don’t kid yourself. You might think your request is incredibly original or immensely valuable to the busy person, but they’ve probably already heard it before (A new app that will make you more productive? NO WAY!) Naturally, they’re going to be a little apprehensive.

Before you even think about reaching out, you need to get your mindset right. Even if you have the best of intentions, and think your request is a relatively minor one, don’t expect an answer. By definition, “busy” people can’t possibly respond to every inquiry. They’re not being rude — they’re just prioritizing. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.

According to Steve Pavlina, author of Personal Development for Smart People, “If you can accept that busy people must triage in order to be effective and have a life, and you can respect them for setting priorities, you’ll have a much better shot at building a bridge with them.”

Here are 8 tips for contacting a busy person:

1. Try to Connect Before You Ask for Anything

The worst way of contacting a busy person is to ask them for something in your first attempt to connect with them. A much better approach is to reach out and contact the person long before you ever actually ask for anything.

One way to do this is via social media. Look for creative ways to quote, feature, or mention the busy person, by including them in a blog post or article you are writing, and then share it with them afterwards via social media. A single tweet might be all it takes to “grease the wheels” and get the conversation started.

Continue to build the relationship by doing things like sharing their content, promoting them, or simply sending relevant resources their way. To do this, you need to really get to know the busy person and understand what they are working on or could use help with. Be patient and allow the connection to grow organically before you jump in and start asking for favors. Don’t burn the bridge before you build it.

Another frequently overlooked option is to examine your existing network and see if you have any ties back to that person. A friend? Business associate? Anything that can be used to show commonality between you and the other person will help.

“Getting someone else to introduce you is one way to get someone’s attention,” says networking expert Lynne Waymon co-author of Make Your Contacts Count. “Find out who you both have in common and ask ‘Will you introduce me?’”

2. Keep Your Communications Brief

“Just a tip of advice. Never write on both sides of the sheet when you are sending a letter to a busy man.” –Jack London, Letter to Louis Stevens, March 24, 1913

Save your life story for another time. The shorter the message, the more likely you will get a reply. And the busier the person, the more important it is that you not waste their time.

First, always start your correspondence with a relevant subject line that’s clear and to the point. The recipient should be able to quickly tell why they would benefit from opening your message, how they know you, or ideally, both.

Can you help me?” With what? Your business? Your math homework? There’s about as much value here as in a rubber crutch. You don’t have to be psychic to know that this one is headed straight for the oval file.

Podcast Appearance to Promote Your New Book” is a much better subject line. By clearly stating what it is you want, and more importantly, how it will benefit the other person, you are much more likely to get your email opened.

Being brief also means excluding anything that isn’t necessary. It’s okay to open with a couple lines of pleasantries about your connection/affinity for the person. “I’m a big fan of what you do and I’ve been reading your magazine for five years now,” or “Seeing your TED talk made me decide to switch my major to biology.” A bit of praise will get your email off on the right start and build rapport. But keep your opening to no more than two sentences.

Keep the main body of your email as succinct as you can as well; aim to make your pitch in five sentences or less. You don’t need to attach your 100-page business plan or a dozen pictures of your prototype before you’ve explained what it is that you actually want. Remember, be respectful of a busy person’s time and wait for the green light before sending follow-up information, if they are open to it.

3. Do Your Research First and Ask Specific Questions

“I do detest being asked general advice, because, in reply, I must do one of two things: (1) Either write two or three books handling the replies or (2) damp the replies by giving only a few short sentences.

What I mean is, any time ask me for particular specific advice, and I shall be only too glad to place myself at your service.

Please remember that I write thousands of letters every year to unknown correspondents. And please remember, (1) that I do not like to write for a living…and that (2) therefore, when I have written all the books that I have written and upon which I work every day, that I am so tired of writing that I’d cut off my fingers and toes in order to avoid writing…

Anyway, please remember that you can call upon me any time for SPECIFIC PARTICULAR advice on any subject.” -Jack London, Letter to Cordie Ingram, April 9, 1913

When you reach out to a busy person, do so with very specific questions in mind. You may only get one shot at this, so you want the questions you ask to offer the most metaphorical bang for your buck; make them questions where you cannot find out the answers anywhere else, and for which you absolutely need the busy person’s unique perspective/connections/input.

So first research the answers to the list of questions you have in mind as rigorously as you can, and see what you can find out from easier-to-access sources. You need to show the busy person you’ve done your homework. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, says “It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds.” In Ferriss’ words, “That puts you on the banned list.”

Not only should you do research before you reach out to a busy person, you should also try to get going on your project/business before you ask them for help. “Don’t ever ask a busy person to ‘pick their brain’ before you begin working on your project or idea,” says AoM’s own Brett McKay. “Instead, wait until it’s really underway, you’re in the thick of it, and you run into a specific problem.” Advice on starting something is typically plentiful and readily available. So save your “Phone-a-Friend” lifeline for when you’ve done all you can on your own and you’ve reached a wall you can’t figure out how to break through.

What specific question you should ask will vary depending on your situation, so it’s easier to explain what types of questions you should not ask. Typical examples of the types of generic questions you should not ask include:

  • I don’t know how to get started with ______. What would you recommend I do?
  • Do you think ____ would apply to my situation?
  • I’m confused about ______ and I’m not sure why I’m not getting it. Do you have any suggestions?

A better approach than these generic questions is to explain 2 or 3 specific options you are considering and ask for specific feedback on this discrete choice.

When you take this approach, you can “make use of your opportunity and ask better questions about specific topics rather than just peppering someone with general inquires,” says McKay. “The time you land with a busy person is valuable, so use it to ask the highest leverage questions you possibly can.”

4. Make Your Pitch Something to Which They Can Say Yes or No

If the question you have for a busy person regards whether or not they want to work with you on something, make your pitch as clear as possible. In other words, don’t ask an open-ended question like, “Would you like to partner with us somehow?” It’s not the busy person’s job to think of ways you two might team up. It’s your responsibility to come up with a specific proposal. A proposal a busy person can answer with a yes or a no.

5. Show Up in Person

Think for a minute about how many sales calls or how much junk mail you receive in a week. The majority of these items are deleted before they are ever opened. The multitude of requests busy people receive often suffer the same fate.

Now consider what you would do if the person making that same plea was standing right in front of you. Not quite so easy to ignore them now, is it?

Waymon says if there is a particular busy person you want to connect with, you should find out what groups or organizations they are part of and see how you can add value to those groups. Perhaps you can join a committee they are on or offer to help with something they’re passionate about.

“Studies show that it often takes 6 contacts with someone before they know who you are and have you placed in their mental Rolodex,” says Waymon. “So committee work and small group activities are good ways to create that continued contact.”

Being part of the same team can get your foot in the door, but you have to be ready when opportunity strikes. “Always have an agenda. Before the meeting think of three or four things you’d like to find out or know more about. Also, be ready to talk about three or four things you’re excited about — personally or professionally,” says Waymon. “Since people want to do business with people they trust, your overall goal is always to teach people to trust you.”

6. Keep Bringing Value

The chances of getting what you want become exponentially better when you offer something of value. A lot of people struggle with how to find something of “value” to offer, but really the options are limitless.

One of the best ways to provide value to a busy person is by helping them to promote their new book, project, business, or event. You can do this in a variety of ways:

  • Write an online review on Amazon, Yelp, or other review site.
  • Feature the busy person in an article on your blog or someone else’s blog.
  • Offer to introduce the busy person to someone relevant. But be sure to ask first.
  • Interview the person for your podcast, or if you don’t have a podcast, record a simple interview using a free service like FreeConferenceCall.com and upload it to your blog or SoundCloud (also free). Keep in mind that if your audience is very small, the busy person will likely make a cost benefit analysis and decide that the amount of promotion you can offer is less than the value of their limited time.
  • Create a Click to Tweet link explaining why you love the particular person’s work and share it with all your friends like this.

Even if you don’t have a blog or podcast, you can record a simple video with the webcam built into your laptop and upload it to YouTube, where millions of people will watch it before going back to watching videos of a cat playing the piano.

Bottom line: Find out what it is they need, or who they want to connect with, and make it happen.

7. Assert Yourself

When you make a request, not only is the message itself important, but so is the tone in which you present it. Michelle Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability, talks about approaching the conversation from what she calls the “middle ground.” You should come off as “not passive, not aggressive, but assertive” says Lederman. Think confident, but not cocky. And definitely not meek.

Lederman also recommends going for the “convenient ask.” Make it as easy as possible for them to say yes to the request. For instance, give the busy person specific dates and times to choose from. Offer to meet them at the location of their choosing. Anything you can do to simplify the request can help.

Finally, Lederman recommends creating a sense of “scarcity.” Create a deadline for a blog post or article so that if the busy person wants to be included, they will need to respond by a particular date in order to make it happen. Having a deadline elicits more responses since these types of requests are harder to push off until later (which usually results in the busy person forgetting to come back to the request).

8. Follow Up (Within Reason)

Now, what do you do if you don’t get a reply? Should you follow up, and if so, how? “I think the secret to building meaningful relationships is following up,” says Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work. But Goins cautions that you have to be careful how quickly or eagerly you follow up. “If you’re too aggressive, it can hurt you. But if you’re too lax, you can miss an opportunity.”

Goins says he will reach out once, then follow up a week later if he doesn’t have a response yet. If he still hasn’t heard back by then, he will “follow up after another week or two with a ‘hey if I don’t hear back from, I won’t bother you again’ email and then move on.” If Goins is really determined, he says he might try a completely different approach. “I may try another way to build trust with the person, like finding a way to meet them in person, but I won’t try the same way that failed before.”

Brett and Kate McKay have a similar suggestion. They say you should follow up once two weeks after sending the original email, and then 6 months later. “Sometimes the busy person will be in a different phase or season of busyness where their circumstances have changed and they’ll be more receptive to the reach out,” says Brett.

If you want to follow up after a week or two, you can use this script:

Hey George, I just wanted to follow up on my prior email once, in case my previous email got lost in your inbox. 

If you aren’t interested, I won’t take offense. If you are interested, let me know. I will send one courtesy follow-up after this email in case the timing right now does not work for you.

-John

By indicating in your message that you are just following up as a courtesy and that the busy person need not respond if they truly are not interested, you are respectful of their time while also balancing the possibility that they really didn’t see your email the prior time around.

Start Contacting Busy People

Remember: busy people aren’t selfish and inconsiderate; I’ve actually found the opposite to be true — that some of the busiest people are actually the most giving types of people. But they also want to be efficient with their time. Remember that the time they give to you is time they sacrifice from working on their own businesses or spending time with their families. So contact them in a way that respects this reality and impinges on their schedule as lightly as possible.

While the entire process may sound intimidating and overly complex, you shouldn’t be intimidated. Like any challenge, connecting with busy people is a skill that you can develop over time. And it’s worth the effort.

“Don’t underestimate your value to someone else,” says Lederman. “There are so many things you can bring to the table that you don’t realize. A little bit of legwork goes a long way.”

Want more help? Grab 5 of my best email templates for contacting busy people here.

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John Corcoran is a former Clinton White House Writer and creator of Smart Business Revolution, where he shares advice on how to grow your income by building better relationships in business.


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