The John Hughes Effect

The John Hughes Effect

When I was 15, I wrote a fan letter to John Hughes and became his pen pal.

This isn’t that blog post. If you want to know that story, you can read it here.

But this blog post is about reaching out to people to ask them for something—even when you think they might be too busy or too important or some other such nonsense—because, in my experience, it’s pretty likely that they are going to come through for you. (I call it “the John Hughes effect,” because it was Hughes that taught me this lesson.) In fact, if they are indeed “busy” or “important,” it’s likely because they have asked other people for help, and those people have come through for them. They’re ready to do the same.

Last week I did an exercise to demonstrate this idea to my staff, whom I am encouraging to be more willing to reach out to people who can help them to understand issues we’re working on, to connect them with people we don’t know, to solve problems for our clients, or to uncover opportunities for us to take on new projects.

My “exercise” involved sending an email to 179 people I know, combing through my 1,200+ LinkedIn connections (who are all these people?) to identify folks from a range of fields and parts of the world. They were friends, former classmates and colleagues, and people with whom I may have had a cup of coffee. Once.

In the email, I asked each recipient to send me 1-2 conferences they had attended that they thought were inspiring so that I could share their recommendations with our clients. Within a week, I had a thirty percent response rate. (For those of you who are bad at math that means about 60 people got back to me.) Some of the people even asked others they knew to share their ideas and they did. Random acts of stranger kindness. Crazy.

It was heartening—it’s nice to hear from people with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. It was interesting—I learned about people’s new jobs and newly developed areas of interest. I got a dinner invitation last week; a drink invitation this week; a new client; a bunch of phone calls; a new Facebook friend; plans to have drinks when I am next in DC, Los Angeles, and New York; plans to have drinks when they are next in Seattle; an invite to Detroit and an invite to Belgium; a baby picture; a report that would be useful to one of our clients; and a couple of exchanges about just how useless conferences can be.

One of my favorite responses was from Farai Chideya, who reports for FiveThirtyEight:

Hey — I’m running around on election duty but look up Spark Camp.”

People who are reporting on this crazy ass presidential election have time to respond to random requests for help. The people in your network do too. People you don’t even know do as well.

The secret? Just ask. To listen to your idea. To introduce you to someone. To teach you about something that is their passion or area of expertise. If they can’t do it, they won’t.

And life goes on.

A couple of the people to whom we reached out asked to see the list when we had pulled it together, which I did last night. It was, after all, the least I could do. I’m sharing it with you as well, because you’ve read this far. If you have ideas for additional conferences to add to the list, share them in the comments.

Now go ask someone for help. 

(By the way, one of the things we do for some of our clients is to support them to attend conferences. We identify conferences that might not be on their radar, pitch them as speakers, help them prepare their talks and presentations, identify people who will be speaking or attending with whom they may want to meet, and provide them with background information and suggestions for topics to discuss. We also support them to use social media to make the most out of their attendance—primarily to connect with those who are also in attendance, but also to promote their talk if they are giving one. And we support them once they have returned as well, helping them to think through how to follow up with connections they made and to share or act on ideas that were inspired by a conversation they had or a presentation they saw. If this is something that might be of value to you or your organization, let us know. We might be able to help.)

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3 Comments

  • Michael Kauffman October 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Hi Alison,
    I read this via a friend’s Facebook post, and it came at a perfect time as I’m currently embracing a new challenge to support the Music Business Association, a trade organization for the music industry, and its annual conference, Music Biz 2017. The conference is a one I’ve attended for many years, and worthwhile for those interested in engaging the music ecosystem. Thanks for sharing!

  • Claudia Horwitz October 25, 2016 at 1:55 am

    This is amazing. Of course as one of the 60 I didn’t know we were part of an experiment and I’m real glad about it. I am part of one robust network that crowd-sources info like this all the time. It should be happening all over the place.

    • Alison Byrne Fields Author October 25, 2016 at 2:11 am

      It was an experiment, but it was also a sincere effort to generate a list of conferences for a client (and for myself). Thanks for being a part of it. You are someone I know I can count on to help when you can and it means the world to me.

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