I receive emails daily asking for a few minutes of my time. Sometimes a friend wants to brainstorm a bit. Regularly strangers say they just need 30 minutes with me to get feedback on their businesses. Entrepreneurs usually hope I will connect them with one of my contacts, promising they only need 10 minutes with the potential investor or legal expert to solve their problems.
Those emails tug at me and I try to meet as many requests as possible, but I am really terrible at putting a time limit on support and advice. The reality is that the “just-a-few-minutes-please” email is scheduled as a 30-minute meeting, which turns into two hours with multiple calls and texts and emails following.
Unless you are seeking help from someone who already knows you, your company and the situation, your only hope for a successful 10-minute call is if you are seeking restaurant recommendations.
Let’s go through some guidelines to respect other people’s time so they will be more likely to answer your call, or make that next introduction, when you next reach out for help.
1. Prepare your agenda: Last week I met with an incredibly nice woman with a huge business idea, revolutionizing the fashion industry. She is a friend of a friend, and we had not been previously introduced. While her concept was intriguing, we spent a lot of time going over basic things she could have found online. She jumped to a different topic before finishing thoughts on the last, so although we ended up discussing more than 10 topics we didn’t go into the depth she needed to hear. If she had chosen one to three very focused areas where we could spend our time, based on research she had done, then deciding the best intersection of her findings with my experience and expertise would have led to a more meaningful experience for both of us.
2. Prepare background information and share it before the meeting: By organizing your materials and documents prior to the meeting, and sharing it at least a few days before, your time can be spent focused on the problem rather than going over the details. I arrived at the meeting happy to listen but with no understanding of my new friend’s needs nor what got her in the current situation. Had she shared even simple documents, our hour together would have been spent with less than five minutes asking for clarification; I could have sent links to help answer many of her questions.
3. Listen: Shockingly, I have a lot of Type A people around me. It is unfortunate that there is a lot more talking happening than listening in many cases. Be cognizant that there is probably a good reason that this expert may want to go into much more detail than you sought or a nuance that you may not deem important. I had good luck with my meeting in that my date was a very communicative person but even she would become impatient waiting for the punchline to stories that could have clinched her investor meetings. I tried to incorporate the message a few times to make sure she internalized it but couldn’t tell if she had finally embraced my suggestions or dismissed them.
4. Clearly articulate an appropriate ask: I love a challenge. When I get seemingly impossible requests for help from those who have already built trust with me, I am like a mom searching for the perfect Christmas gift – an unstoppable force. On this occasion, I was asked to make some low-level introductions that would actually hurt my ability to assist the entrepreneur later, using relationships to reach people that are easily accessible through other means The inquiry made me question her strategy and raise my guard even more.
5. Finally, ask if there is anything else you should have asked: Always leave a few minutes at the end to allow for proper closure – your mentor may want to discuss a new topic or has more to add. Ask specifically what else you should have asked, or what else may you have overlooked. Keep a running list.
As the ten minutes you requested turn into 45, the chances that the next request for time will be denied goes up considerably. Remember that sometimes an entire community must share the scarce resources of talent and expertise, meaning a bad experience may shut a great support system off to the rest of the ecosystem. Time is everyone’s most precious commodity and treasuring the minutes you have with someone you admire is the best way to ensure a follow-up is even an option.
Susan Amat is the founder of Launch Pad Tech, www.launchpadtech.co. Follow her on Twitter at @susanamat.