How do you get busy, important people to notice you? In this age of connectedness, it’s easier than ever to meet your heroes and even partner with them—as long as you know how to do it.
My rule has always been to only ever ask people whom I consider to be friends, and yet I am always surprised by the fact that they say yes. To know so many influential, kind people doing important work is, to say the least, an embarrassment of riches.
This whole journey of meeting influential people and getting them to partner with me on projects surprised me. In this article, I’ll share what I learned and how you, too, can partner with people you admire.
What I discovered was that the people who were at another “level” were actually often eager to work with me and help my projects succeed, and that’s important for all of us to understand. But before we talk about the how, let’s first talk about the why.
It’s always good to begin with the end in mind.
Over the years, I have met many “influencers” which is to say, bestselling authors, popular speakers, and successful entrepreneurs. Some of them were very nice, and others were not. Most of them were just people, full of the usual foibles and idiosyncrasies that plague us all. And almost every one of them had the same goal:
To see their influence grow.
Now, they might think of this as helping people or creating a legacy or impact, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same thing: influence. They want their work to reach more people and make a difference. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But we live in a culture of celebrity that worships famous people, so we’ve created this expectation that influencers want fans, and fans need to kiss the butts of those whom they admire. And I will tell you, based on my experience, that is not what they want. They’re happy to sign your book or hear how their podcast “changed your life,” but more than all that, they just want to keep helping people.
Real influencers just want to keep helping people. They thrive on solving problems, sharing their ideas, and seeing the impact they can have.
These people thrive on solving problems, sharing their ideas, and seeing the impact they can have. So the best thing you can do, in my mind, is start with the understanding that if you want to “help” these people, your job is to in some way help their influence grow.
How do you do that?
There are, in my mind, three basic strategies to influencing an influencer. I’ve used these for years to broker business relationships, make new friends, and even get world-class speakers to present at my conference for free.
Quick note on “strategies” for meeting people
Please understand that this is not a strategy or a formula. It’s a relationship.
If you try to use this to “hack” your way into a “friendship” with an influencer, it won’t work.
If you use this to get someone you respect to do something for you, it won’t work.
If you do this for any other reason than to actually connect with another human being and be their friend, it won’t work.
My intent with sharing this is to simply explain how I think relationships work and the fortunate byproducts you experience from genuinely connecting with and helping other people.
As Zig Ziglar famously said,
You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.
But your motives, as much as they can be, must be pure in this pursuit. Otherwise, your intentions will be sadly transparent and people will obviously recognize you as a “taker.” (For more on this, I recommend reading Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, which talks about the differences between givers, takers, and matchers. The goal, of course, in all this is to be a giver, not someone who takes from others or does something nice just so the other people returns the favor.)
Anyway, that said, here’s how I think influential relationships are earned over time and the long-term benefit to making friends with the right people. I’ve delineated these into three basic steps for the sake of ease and clarity, but understand relationship is always more nuanced than a three-step formula.
Nonetheless, I hope this somewhat-arbitrary approach helps you break down what otherwise feels like a mysterious phenomenon.
Also, I don’t love the word “influencer” as it can connote all kinds of silly forms of celebrity and Instagram-famous people, but I cannot think of a better moniker for an influential person, so please pardon my use of the term in this post. It seemed to be the most appropriate.
Step 1: Get on their radar
First, you have to get on the person’s radar, and one of the best ways to do that is not by becoming their peer but rather by becoming their case study. In other words, apply what you’ve learned from them and tell them about it, or help someone else do it, and tell them about that. Regardless, the point is that you are demonstrating that the work of the influencer actually works.
This is what I call the Case Study Strategy, which I share more about in my bestselling book Real Artists Don’t Starve. In short, what this means is if you want influential people to pay attention to you, you have to somehow multiply their influence by putting their principles or advice to work. Here’s how it works:
1. Do what they say.
Whether that’s from a book or a podcast or even something you heard them say at a live event. Apply their advice. Seriously. Nobody does this, therefore doing so will separate you from about 80% of the crowd. What you do next will separate from virtually everyone else.
2. Tell them about it.
This can be done via email, phone, blog comment, whatever. Just let them (and everyone else who has impacted you) know that you have put their wisdom to work. This should be a habit, something you do all the time.
Every time you hear a speaker at an event, listen to a podcast, or read a book that truly changes the way you live—tell the people who inspired what they did. Try to let at least one influencer per week know what you’ve learned from them and how you’ve put it into action.
If the person responds (and many will not), start a dialogue with them. Your first ask should be some kind of follow-up question. Keep sharing what you’ve learned from them and asking for more help on whatever they’ve helped you with.
Make sure your questions are not something you can easily Google and find the answer to. Study their material, read their books, listen to their podcasts. Then ask good questions.
After a few exchanges, it’s not out of the question to ask to meet them. This can be done via Skype or Zoom or even over coffee or lunch. If you have a podcast or blog, you could ask to interview them. Only do this once you’ve built up some rapport with the person and then know that they’ve helped you and you aren’t seeking cheap advice.
Once you’ve done this, you are on the person’s radar. Whether you consider this person a peer or a personal hero of yours, it doesn’t matter. The goal in life is to always act like an apprentice.
Step 2: Be a “good hang”
Tim Ferriss has summarized his marketing strategy for the four-hour work as “getting drunk with bloggers.” This is not that far from the truth. As far as I can tell, he spent at least a year intentionally attending as many tech conferences as he possibly could, befriending bloggers by buying them drinks and partying with them, and then gradually build up a Rolodex of people he could call upon when his book came out.
He did just that and this network of bloggers and new media voices helped launched a first-time author and relatively unknown voice to instant bestsellerdom.
When I was writing Real Artists Don’t Starve, I interviewed Zach Prichard, who launched his own video production company without any previous experience in video, photography, or production. How did he do it?
First, he saw an opportunity to help author Donald Miller rescue his failing film project to turn one of his books into a movie. Zach and a friend tirelessly worked for months on a project called Save Blue Like Jazz, which was a social media-driven crowdfunding campaign, and at the time was one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, raising over $300,000 in less than 30 days.
Second, he said yes to basically every opportunity that came his way. After the crowdfunding campaign, Zach was asked by the film’s director to take photos during the filming of the movie. He had never done photography before. It didn’t matter. He said yes. This is always the first response of somehow who is thinking and acting like an apprentice. We are all apprentices at something, and Zach knew that if he was going to be able to leave his job at a record label and work for himself (which was a dream of his), he was going to have to keep saying yes.
This eventually led to his doing some video work, which led to the next gig and the next gig, and so on until he found himself years later working on a 30 for 30 documentary for ESPN. When I asked Zach how he consistently gets great gigs that pay well and offer opportunities to bring his work as a film editor to a broader audience, he said one of the most overlooked secrets is the importance of being “a good hang.”
That’s the third thing he did. Zach understood that when you’re working on a film project with a director, you’re spending a lot of time together in close quarters, so being someone other people enjoy being around is important.
This is a difficult “strategy” to share, because it’s a difficult skill to learn. On one hand, we all want to believe that we are judged by the quality of our work and nothing more, but that’s like saying “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Nearly everyone does this, and the truth is that in creative work, social connections matter.
What I’ve learned, though, is that this doesn’t have to be hard. I consider myself a shy, somewhat awkward person, but I’ve learned how to be with people I admire and not completely botch it. I’ve not always been good at this and certainly have lots left to learn, but a few tips that have saved me from total embarrassment are:
1. Ask good questions.
Josh Kaufman has a great list of good questions to ask. The most charismatic people I know have simply mastered the art of asking good questions. Whenever meeting someone, be ready with good questions. This was something I actually learned from meeting Michael Hyatt and doing it wrong the first time. Even though I was the one asking to meet him, he was ready with questions, and I was not. I took a lot away from the meeting and realized that if the CEO of a large publishing company could take the time to prepare a few questions to meet with an aspiring writer, I should do the same anytime I meet anyone.
2. Say thank you.
In my experience, influencers don’t really want fanboys or fangirls. They want people who will follow their advice, apply it, and help their influence increase. So I think it’s appropriate to say “Thank you for your work, it helped me do X.” but there’s no need to suck up to them. Usually, this will make things weird. At the same time, don’t pretend to be their peer; show them respect.
3. Offer to buy them coffee or lunch.
One way you can clearly demonstrate that you’re not trying to use the person is to ask if you can buy their coffee or lunch, if you’re meeting them in person. If you meet them online or interview them, you could send them a small gift card or some other token of appreciation. By the way, you sending them your book is not that. That’s a form of self-promotion, which comes later.
Send them something that immediately adds value to their life. It doesn’t have to break the bank, either. A $5 gift card to a local coffee shop or a $10 Amazon card is a fine a gesture. Again, the point here is to clearly show that you’re a giver, not a taker—or as Tim Sanders calls it, a “love cat.”
4. End the meeting on time.
Show up on time, leave on time. Don’t linger, don’t drag out the meeting. Respect their time, and let them go when you said you would. One of the worst feelings in the world is when you give your time to someone and they cling to it (and you), and you have to awkwardly excuse yourself. Don’t make it awkward for them to say goodbye; make it easy. If you do your job of being a good hang, this likely won’t be the last time you meet.
Step 3: Follow up
The greatest lesson I learned from one of my first bosses, Seth Barnes, was the importance of following up. When I asked him, an MBA grad and founder of a successful nonprofit organization not to mention multiple businesses over the years, how he had built up such an impressive list of influential people (including many multi-millionaire donors), he said,
“You know, I’m not the most charismatic guy in the room. I know that. But what I can do is follow up. My strategy is to just stay in these people’s lives long after most people have dropped out.”
And he’s right. Over the years, I’ve seen him do that with many people, including myself. When most of us would just let relationships fizzle out, Seth diligently follows up consistently, year after year after year.
I learned this in my encounters with people like Michael Hyatt. In fact, as I mentioned, I botched my first meeting with him and it was only by following up and showing him that I was doing the work, that I think he stuck around.
The rules for following up are pretty simple:
Once you meet an influencer, follow up immediately with notes from the meeting. After I met Michael Hyatt, I sat in the same coffee shop where we had just met, and typed up some notes on my laptop from our meeting before I forgot what I had learned.
Email the person with a few takeaways from the meeting, thanking them.
A week or so later, follow up and let them know what you’ve put into practice.
If they respond, continue the conversation. With Hyatt, I emailed him almost every week for seven months, letting him know how I was putting his advice into action or sometimes asking follow-up questions that I couldn’t find on his blog
There is no perfect way to do this other than to act like a human being and not a crazy person. If they stop responding, stop sending them emails. If they keep responding, keep it going. My general rule is that if I’ve emailed someone three times in a row without a response, I won’t follow up again for at least six months.
Putting it together (or why they said yes)
How did I apply these principles to getting some of my favorite bloggers and authors and speakers to present at Tribe Conference for the past five years? To be honest, it always surprised me when someone would say yes. But as I step back, I realize that most of them agreed for the same reasons:
1. We were already friends.
Which is to say we had met at some point (often through the Case Study Strategy) and developed a relationship outside of my asking them to do something for me. This is huge. If you meet someone and immediately ask them for something, they’re going to feel used. Whereas, if you meet them, hang out and have fun together, and eventually ask them to be a part of something you’ve created, it feels much more natural.
2. I had already helped them.
At least, in most cases, I’d done something to promote their work, whether that be through a podcast interview, promoting their book, or speaking at their event. I can’t stress enough how important it is to do these things without any expectation that the favor is going to be repaid. I’ve done lots of favors for friends over the years that didn’t turn into a tit-for-tat thing. The goal here is to just be generous and understand when it comes time for you to make an ask, you’ve made enough deposits into your network, that it’s not a big deal.
3. I asked without apology or pressure.
When you ask a friend to do something, you don’t imply that they owe you; you understand it’s an honor to get some of their time and try to respect it as much as possible. Also, it’s important to not make them feel pressured or coerced in any way. In my case, I invited friends to speak at my event because I thought the audience would get something out of it and that the speaker would, too.
When building the speaker lineup, I try to be mindful of the fact that one reason a speaker will agree to present at an event for less than their full fee is because other speakers they know will be there. So I invite people who know each other (or want to meet) to speak onstage the same year. I love having my event be an excuse for them to connect or get to know each other better.
There’s nothing wrong with sweetening the deal without trying to force their hand. In some cases, I worked out special deals where I offered to speak at their conference in exchange for their speaking at mine, but in most cases, the ask was simply, “I’d love to have you. What do you think?”
Be a good friend
So that’s it. In essence, what I’m saying is that if you want people to partner with you: be a good friend.
Connect without agenda, help others get what they want, and occasionally ask for a favor without ever bringing up what you’ve done for them.
Because whether or not someone does something for you isn’t the point. The point is the relationship, and if you nurture that, opportunities to help each other will come and go, but the relationship itself will never be contingent on whether or not those things happen.