Make that Connection

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

Author: Ryan O'Donnell, MS, BCBA

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to communicate prior to a lot of the technology developments that my generation grew up with… How did letters work?  How long did you have to wait?

Now, I’m being a bit facetious, but really just stop and think a minute about who you recently talked to. Here’s where the past 15 people in the various communication apps that I have on my iPhone are currently located:

  1. Brazil
  2. Puerto Rico
  3. Brazil
  4. Uganda
  5. Canada
  6. Germany
  7. UAE
  8. Cuba
  9. USA

That’s within just a short 24 hour period. Now if we were to jump back even say 20 years it probably would have taken a vast amount of resources to reach out to these people and make a meaningful connection. Sometimes when I’m talking with behavior analysts they ask me how I meet people and network. There are a few different ways that I do that, and I’d like to jump into one thing that I used to struggle with and have gotten over after years of struggling to know how to do it.

What you need to pull this strategy off:

  1. Understanding of the interests of the person you are contacting
  2. How to write a short, honest, and genuine email
  3. A goal of what you’re looking to gain from the connection
  4. How you’re going to provide value to the person that you’re contacting

But first, let’s create a little context.

Engulfing Myself in an Area of the Literature

I remember back to when I was about 1.5 years and a few thousand pages of writings of Steve Hayes’ work published in various places. After some 500 days of reading or thinking about someone’s words, you sort of feel like you’ve gotten to know them. I had never spoken to Steve. I had never met him. I have never heard him speak at a conference. I had never taken a class from him. However, his trail of writings in various books, articles, blogs, and listserv posts made him a daily part of my life, all without him knowing it.

Sounds a little weird right? But I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience. If not, then when you find that area of the literature or align your passion with behavior analysis I’m sure you’ll experience it too. 

So now that it’s almost weird, let’s talk about why this mattered. I was intrigued by how efficient he was. At the time of me reaching out (I think it was 2013), he was somewhere around or over 500 published articles, chapters, or books on contextual behavioral science. On top of that, he was a father, professor, thinker, and doer of many other projects.

So what’s the one thing that Steve (indirectly) taught me?

Make the connection.

In this case, it was an email. Here’s what I did:

1. Understanding of the interests of the person you are contacting

I read enough of his material that I was pretty darn sure I was ready for any response that he threw at me. If it was over my head, then I had a few different people that I could call and recruit for help. Email as a medium of interaction also provided me a safety new (i.e., I didn't have to immediately reply).

2. How to write an honest and genuine email

I spent 2 hours writing, reading, and re-reading the same email. I made sure that when I hit send, and if he opened it up, that I had everything that I was looking to have answered embedded in the email. It wasn’t long, but it was thorough.

3. A goal of what you’re looking to gain from the connection

I had two specific questions that I was looking to get an answer on. I’m not going to share the details here, but I can say that they were explicitly stated and he knew that.

4. How you’re going to provide value to the person that you’re contacting

I hadn’t realized it at the moment, but I accidentally included this one prior to making it an explicit point to do when I initially reach out to someone. Luckily I had asked a question that Steve had only received a handful of times in his life, and asking that question caught his eye, likely creating a lot more value in the return email than if I had asked a different question. Would he still have responded? I’d be willing to bet so – that guy is a machine. But I really struck it lucky on this one and I always embed it in my initial correspondence now. 


To what extent do you have to follow this or will it work for you?  I’m really not sure. But what’s the likelihood of you not reaching out leading to your intended outcome? (Hint: I’m willing to be it’s not as good as you reaching out.)

Whoever that person for you is I dare you to put an hour of your week into thinking about these four areas and reaching out to them. Here’s a short list of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do without reaching out and talking with other behavior analysts in the field:

  1. Be a part of ABAI’s 2nd Education Conference with a planning committee full of badasses
  2. Attend and present at what will now be 3 international ABAI conferences.
  3. Landed conference presentations at Gifted and Talented Conferences talking about our science and self-management package
  4. Understand the importance of making a daily effort to step forward and making that initial contact (this is the best one - the knowledge!) 

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