How to Ask Me (or Any Expert) a Question

Every day, I get at least one email that looks more or less like this:

I hope this note finds you well and thanks for your time in advance. My name is X and I am studying/working at Y.  I’m writing something exploring the general topic of Z, and after browsing your blog I know you would be a great person to talk to. Is this something that you would be open to chatting about ?

I am a friendly but busy person who gets lots of these emails.  I enjoy talking about interesting issues with interesting people, and will spend some unpaid time doing that.

However, if you want a bit of that unpaid time, you need to offer me one of three things:

  1. Marketing.  You might be interested in having us do a study or a paid event.  Talking with you is part of my marketing budget, and I’m happy to do that.
  2. Influence.  You’re a journalist for a recognizable publication, or you want me involved in a major conference.  In that case, I’m trading my time for some influence in the larger conversation, which I’m usually happy to do.
  3. Intellectual Fun.  You can’t offer marketing or influence, but you want to have a conversation that’s interesting — to me and not just to you.  This can be fun and educational for both of us.

If you ask me a general question that requires me to explain things that I’ve explained in writing, and that I’ve said 1000 times in presentations, well, it’s interesting for you but not so much for me.   I repeat myself all the time on the job, and I’m happy to do it, but it’s not how I spend my time off.

In short:

  1. Explore about what I’ve already said on your topic.  (Search the blog, or peruse the Basics posts.  or watch some videos you can watch, or read my book, whose introduction is here.)
  2. Form interesting thoughts about that.  Reasoned disagreements are especially welcome.
  3. Start a conversation with those thoughts.

That’s what I did when I was in your shoes, as a geek and advocate with no relevant connections, job, or influence.  It worked.

So if I didn’t respond to your email, this is probably why.  (Though sometimes, I admit, I’m just too busy.)


10 Responses to How to Ask Me (or Any Expert) a Question

  1. TT April 11, 2017 at 9:51 am #

    Perhaps HT Blog could consider a paywalled webinar with someone from the firm.

    Every time there is an e-mail – send back a link to the next online group chat and a pay portal.

    Want to have a group chat? $X during times Y-Z.

    Just like introducing road user charges- but for busy people 😉

  2. Jarrett Walker April 11, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    You’re right, we could make a line of business out of this.

    Still there is a part of my bandwidth that I want to be pro bono, where I can engage people without regard to money. I was a poor but creative teenage geek once, and I wouldn’t be in the business today if I’d had to pay for access to our local transit experts at that sensitive age.

    Instead, I came to the transit experts with thoughts that were interesting to them. So they wanted to talk with me. That’s an equally valid transaction, and with no taxes too.

  3. TT April 11, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    Private businesses have freebies, discounts, specials, free trials, ‘lite versions’, and exceptions. Could be adapted.

    A price of $0.00 is a price too.

    Best of luck!

  4. Another commenter April 12, 2017 at 3:19 pm #

    Group chat is a wonderful idea. The people who want to talk to you would likely want to ‘meet’ one another as well. And as TT said, you’re free to make it free for worthy discussants who can’t afford to pay.

  5. Paul M April 12, 2017 at 10:32 pm #

    Very much appreciate this blog post as when i asked a question and didn’t get a response. I was still early in my education process around all the topics involved with transport.
    Your blog provides a educational background that any new person looking at the topic should view. It looks at the topic of transport as a system that is USED by the larger community as opposed to a technology item.
    My advise for any person looking at this topic is to look at project management and systems engineering as a different layer of perspective. We all love the “shiny bobble thing:” that does something at x speed with y passengers but its the next layer of thinking as to the why (purpose) of the “shiny bobble thing” that the most important.
    I may not be in marketing, or influential (at the moment and probably never) or still catching up to your thinking on this issue but if ever i am you and your firm will not be forgotten.

  6. Kaito April 17, 2017 at 11:50 am #

    Please consider hosting a transit-oriented Mastodon instance.

  7. S. L. April 19, 2017 at 4:19 am #

    Have you gotten an uptick of emails with people trying to sound impressive, but it’s actually a veiled attempt to solicit some unpaid time?

    Additionally, Thanks for time to work on this blog. I know the work you put into this can be time consuming and yours is limited. I have been around here for quite a few years and I have learned a lot. I subscribe to a small government ideology; yet, I see your approach to transportation as a cost effective fiscally responsible way to help make communities work for everyone.

  8. R. W. Rynerson April 22, 2017 at 6:44 pm #

    Working for agencies that were leaders in various aspects led me to the same problems, with an added twist. If a person was too demanding and we couldn’t accommodate their requests, they’d write the mayor or governor, whose staffer would tell us to make them go away.

    The all-time winner in my five decades was a two-hour phone call from Van, BC when I was Edmonton Transit’s Marketing Officer. I stayed late to help what seemed to be a student, remembering the many people in the industry who had helped me. I had been interviewed for a marketing position in Van and was familiar enough with it to have some ideas. It turned out that the caller was the guy who had been hired! It was funny even at the time, but a year later the Van agency was abolished and the staff were unemployed, so in hindsight it was better to have spent two hours than to have found myself out on the street.

  9. Jonathan Owens June 9, 2018 at 6:37 pm #

    Not sure this wording was correct. Is there a missing “not”?
    > I repeat myself all the time on the job, and I’m happy to do it, but it’s how I spend my time off.

    • Chris Yuen June 20, 2018 at 11:19 am #

      you’re right! I’ve made the correction