Mine other people for insights

Sep 23, 2014 | Better Writing

“I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow.”
~ Woodrow Wilson

You’ve got a brain that you can mine for insight, but why stop there? There are millions of brains out there and some of them can help you write better. Follow Woodrow Wilson’s example and borrow a few.

The obvious suspects

Sometimes you can go right to an expert who knows what you want to learn about. Master the skill of finding experts.

The magic of six degrees of separation

It really is a small world. According to Wikipedia,

“Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world.”

Back in the day when the internet wasn’t around to making finding people so easy, I used to teach this as part of a class in research. The procedure is simple.

Decide who in your social circle is most likely to know what you want to learn. Then contact that person. He or she will know what you want or not. If not, ask them who they know that might be the person you want to talk to. Ask your friend for permission to use their name when you contact the person they suggest. Then contact that person and repeat until you’ve found the brain you’re seeking.

You’re more likely to be successful if you phrase your initial question to everyone you contact in a particular way.

The first question to ask

When I’ve done this in class, people want to ask their friend for their knowledge, but you want to learn about their knowledge and relationships. That’s because you want to find knowledgeable people beyond those who might be in your circle of close friends. So ask your question this way.

“I’m trying to find out more about _______. Can you help me or point me to someone who can?”

The “point me to someone” part will set you off down a chain of “friend-of-a-friend” contacts. You should find someone helpful before you’ve finished your sixth contact. And you can speed up the process by contacting several people instead of just one.

This used to be mostly a phone game, but the net has introduced another wrinkle.

Formal networks that mimic social networks

We call them social networks, but they’re really only technology. The technology gives us a way to connect, but the people are the network, even though some technology tries to mimic the true social network.

LinkedIn is the best known of those. LinkedIn will show you how you’re connected to another person. That’s great, but only if you already know the name of the person you want to reach.

You may want to reach out to your whole network on LinkedIn or Twitter by simply posting the question you’re trying to answer. That sometimes works, but remember that the technology is not your real social network.

To get the best results finding brains to borrow, it’s still a good idea to start with someone close to you and ask the six degrees question.