The Informational Interview Is Actually a Thing You Should Do, Yes

The Harvard Business Review has a feature called THE MANAGEMENT TIP, which is: management tips. I like these tips because they are short and totally digestible, and reading through a half dozen of them feels like at least the equivalent of half an MBA.

ANYWAY I have something to say about today’s hot tip (Today’s hot tip: “Explore a new career with an informational interview”) and that is: GREAT TIP. Really great tip. Though: There was a time in my life when I would have been like, “Yeah that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, no one does that. Ring Ring. ‘Can I have an informational interview?’ I’d rather die.”

BUT I HAVE LEARNED that the secret to the informational interview is: You don’t call it an informational interview. What it really is: Being curious and reaching out to strangers. That’s it.

HERE ARE FOUR TIMES I’VE DONE IT:

1. I emailed an old boss to ask him to introduce me to  his colleague because I thought she did dope work. He wrote an intro email. I replied to the intro email thanking him for the intro and asking his colleague a question, which was: How can I do what you do? Here’s the email, with specifics removed (TOP SECRET).

Thanks, BOB.
Hi, SHIRLEY.
I understand how busy you are, and I thank you reading this. This is what I do now, but I’m really interested in learning more about this other thing and developing my skills there. I admire your work in the field because of this specific reason that I’m going to give right now.

Here’s a sentence or two to show you that I actually have done some research and have some knowledge in this field and am not just going to waste your time by asking you questions I could learn from your Twitter bio.

I suppose what I’d love would be a quick phone call during which we could talk about your work and experiences so I can try to emulate the work that you do! Thanks so much, Logan

Okay so this is actually not even the best email. I’m reading it now and am kind of grossed out by it. In fact it’s kind of a bore—”emulate the work that you do,” ha, that’s dumb. But it worked, so I think maybe the point is … it doesn’t have to be the best email. It just has to be short and sincere. Sometimes you will not get a response. I did on this one, and we had a phone call, and I learned all about the industry, most importantly that it’s FIVE THOUSAND TIMES HARDER than she makes it look. If I didn’t get a response I’d maybe follow-up once and then move on.

2. I met a woman who had a super, super cool job. The next day (week), I sent her an email saying I loved meeting her and was totally jazzed about the existence of her career and that I’d love to talk to her about how she got where she is if she ever has the time. Time passed. We had a phone call. Time passed. Every now and then I checked in over email. Time passed. She landed a project that required a person JUST LIKE ME, and since I was in her email inbox sometimes, she asked me if I’d like to apply. I said yes and then jumped through one thousand hoops and got the job. I would not say that this is a typical result when you reach out to people, but I would say this is PERHAPS LITERALLY the only way to actually get a job.

3. When people write things that I like, I email them to say: “I really liked that thing you wrote. It made me think and/or feel things. Good job.” I don’t always do this, but sometimes I do this. This is a great thing to do. People love a compliment, especially a thoughtful one, and once you do this one or two times, you can maybe add a question onto your compliment. “I loved this thing you did for this reason. You do such good work, and I’d love to do the kinds of things you do someday. I know you started at this whatever tiny publication, but how did you jump to this bigger better publication? Would love any hot tips you have on furthering my career.”

OR WHATEVER. I mean, here’s the deal, the answer is never, ever going to be some secret. It’s always like, yeah, work hard and work a lot and also have some luck and be nice to people and maybe eventually you’ll get a break and there’s no one path, man. But the more people you know the better, and not just in like, a use-y way, but in a real, actual way: There are no downsides to knowing more people.

4. Okay this other time I found this writer that wrote about this one topic in a very interesting way that I hadn’t seen anyone write about that topic before, and so I reached out to him and was like, HEY. YOUR WORK IS GREAT. I NOTICE THAT YOU ARE IN MY CITY THAT YOU DON’T LIVE IN FOR THE WEEK. CAN I BUY YOU A COFFEE? Usually I would say, don’t ever ask people you don’t know to get coffee with you but since this person didn’t live in town I felt like I had kind of the upper hand a little bit, like, OH LOOK AT ME, NATIVE OF CITY, BEING KIND. And I had really specific questions. It worked out. We are not best friends or getting married. He is also not my mentor or boss. Actually I stopped following him on Twitter after we met. But: We met. And I learned some things about how careers work, and that is: Being a super genius with lots of money really, really helps.

IN REVIEW
1. Don’t ask for an informational interview. Ask for a few minutes of their time on the phone or over email or whatever. Nobody wants to meet you in person. Don’t even ask.
2. Don’t just be like, how did you get where you are today? That’s a bore. Also, do your research.
3. Have a specific-ish question.
4. Be nice to everyone.
5. Humans give other humans jobs and gigs and opportunities. THEREFORE, in order to get  jobs and gigs and opportunities, it makes sense to try to know as many humans as possible.
6. It’s okay to be awkward. It’s pretty hard not to be awkward when reaching out to people you don’t know. Just go with it. And don’t make any dumb jokes in your intro email. One dumb joke, max. Maybe two. That’s it.

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24 Comments / Post A Comment

mayonegg (#1,245)

Love this. I can’t believe there are still networking events when it is so easy to just reach out to people you admire via The Interwebs. Generally, people love talking about themselves, so it’s never too hard to be like “Hey can you talk about yourself at me after I buy you a coffee?”

eatyourchildren (#1,854)

Great advice. I’ve done this and it’s helped me meet tons of people doing what I want to do and turned into several great jobs. If you want a job or info about a career start doing this immediately.

aetataureate (#1,310)

I am having one of these soon! And it’s even a sitdown. Oh my gosh.

But it’s not with Tami Taylor and now the disappointment of that is suffocating me. Thanks a LOT, Logan.

boots (#270)

This is the most useful thing ever posted on this site. It’s amazing how dumb the whole concept seems until you’ve tried it.

OhMarie (#299)

@boots Yeah, I feel like the whole title of “informational interview” does the thing a disservice. It sounds so reasonable once you break down what it actually is.

caprette (#1,855)

I disagree about people not wanting to meet in person, though it probably depends on the city. I work in DC, and I probably had AT LEAST 10 in-person info interviews. I find that people tend to be pretty open to meeting in person, particularly because most people with have their jobs because THEY met with/knew the right person.

themegnapkin (#444)

@caprette totally agree (and not in DC). Also, I think it’s a really hard hurdle to get over in your head, thinking that people won’t want to bother to spend time with you or help you. The few times I have reached out like this, I’ve had a great response. And the few times I have been reached out to, I’ve been so happy to help. Most people are nice, and if you ask for help in a respectful way (mainly respectful of people’s time, Logan is dead on, you need to do your research and ask specific questions), most people will help you.

Robin (#1,320)

@caprette That’s what I was going to say. Perhaps it’s because I work for a large university, but I have gone for coffee with MANY people in advance of applying for jobs/interviewing. It’s a great way to show that you are invested in it (how easy is it to write an email?) and also to show off your awesome interpersonal skills (if you are a space cadet in person, perhaps emails are best).

Megoon (#328)

@caprette Completely agree. I think it’s hard to connect with someone in a memorable way over the phone, and if you make it easy for the person, they’re probably happy to meet up.

Also, a great thing to ask at the end of the meeting is who else might be good to talk to.

EM (#1,012)

Ann Friedman wrote a great post full of information for aspiring writers/journalists that is full of awesome advice (http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/06/realtalk-for-the-j-school-graduate-on-the-first-five-years-of-your-career/) but one part I really liked was you should be talking to people who aren’t just right at the top of your aspiring field, but those who are only a few steps ahead of you– they can provide the most useful information about how you can move forward in your career.

triplea (#1,234)

Great advice, thank you. I’ve done this a few times and sometimes people actually want to meet you in person and show you their office and stuff and it’s great. Sadly it hasn’t led me to a job yet but I hold on to those contact FOREVER.

Jellybish (#560)

Also, DON’T LIE. Someone e-mailed me recently and name-dropped a colleague and said this colleague was going to write an e-mail to me introducing her. It turns out that my colleague said she could mention her name when contacting me, but never promised a referral or recommendation. Maybe it’s an innocent mistake or a dumb misunderstanding on her part, but it doesn’t make me want to talk to her.

Nick (#1,548)

@Jellybish I think you’re being too harsh, it sounds like just an innocent misunderstanding to me rather than a lie.

Jellybish (#560)

@Nick Probably. But it was such a poorly written e-mail overall that even without that, it made me uninterested in talking to her. I did actually offer to speak with her, but she wasn’t available at the time I offered. And I never followed up because a. I think that’s on her, and b. this is my last week at this job and I’ve got enough on my plate right now.

punzy (#160)

What should those of us you are terrible and awkward at coming up with questions do?

DavidDavid (#1,898)

@punzy It’s always useful and fairly easy to keep the initial focus of the conversation on the person you are meeting with (i.e. ask questions about them and how they came to have their current role. Show interest in them. Ask about what influenced their own career decisions; what in the firm they would change if they could; ask them to characterize the nature of the culture of the organization; and then there is “based on my credentials, how would you see someone like me adding value to what your organization is accomplishing; who do you most compete with; how are you different, the same, etc.?”

Harriet Welch (#127)

You can take this a step above (obviously if people are willing and amenable) by offering to help them to tag along when they do something.

When I was wandering lost through my life I went collecting with a lepidopterist, check out a flood plain drainage project with a civil engineer and see filings and court proceedings with a lawyer. I expressed interest and enthusiasm. I offered to hold things, record data etc in exchange for tagging along.
I didn’t end up doing these things. Instead I fell into teaching elementary school. These excellent contacts were not a waste though. All of them have agreed to do “ask an expert” bits for relevant content in my lessons.
Not saying everyone will do this, but you never know what could help. People who are passionate about things often like to share those passions with people who are enthusiastic.

100% agree. Also, if you already have a job, it becomes much easier because A) your colleagues can set you up and B) the person is less concerned that you’re going to ask them to get you a job. I’ve had lots of interesting conversations with my colleagues about their various past places of work… which reminds me, one of them offered to set me up to talk with one of her friends who works at [huge organization in my field]. I should act on that!

DavidDavid (#1,898)

Two other very key things when in an informational interview:
1. NEVER EVER ask for a job or position at the firm if the basis of the call or meeting was to get advice (information). If the person you are meeting with thinks you would be a good fit, he or she will make it clear when it’s appropriate for you to say “sure, I’d be interested in hearing more about a position with you.”

2. Particularly in NYC, almost everyone is always willing to meet to provide you with advice about how your credentials look to others, and make appropriate introductions that can result in the real purpose of your quest for an informational interview. Just be sure to have the discipline to keep it on that level (to obtain advice) and don’t ask for more than you stated was the purpose of the time together (by phone, or whatever) … If all you get is information, take that as your answer.

hershmire (#695)

Me, in an e-mail to British journalist in DC (paraphrased): Hi, I’m a student exploring career options. I’m curious what it’s like to be a foreign journalist in the US and what it takes to become a foreign correspondent. Could we sit down over lunch sometime and talk about it?

Him (verbatim e-mail): No.

carpetblogger (#1,908)

All good advice, but please, write your intro email like a normal person, not like you write on the internet. The olds will judge you.

aerie9 (#1,966)

The tags on this post are totally great.
Also, very helpful tips and links in the comments section. Thanks, all!

His subject is good, long while I find this topic and I think it is here, world population day

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