To every student, colleague, and friend who asks me for advice about their academic, career, and overall life path, at some point I inevitably suggest “informational interviewing.” Most of the time people respond with a look that suggests I’ve grown another head. To me, it is essential. And here’s why:
- Over 80% of jobs in the U.S. are gotten through connections, word of mouth, and personal contact. That suggests that simply submitting hundreds of resumes and cover letters is not going to yield the results you want in the overwhelming majority of cases. Connections will.
- Most people love to tell the story of their journeys to wherever they are when you meet them. Storytelling is as old as our ability to make words. When you ask someone to share their tales, it affirms them and makes them feel good – affirmed by another human. That is not nothing.
- Most people are generous and want to help others, so giving them a chance to do that also generates warm feelings in them.
- There’s nothing like meeting people who have experience in a given field to get a real bird’s-eye view of the work, the culture, the environment to help you make decisions for yourself and your life.
- Every contact you have can lead to other people, people who may be looking for a new employee or a business partner or know someone who is.
So, how do you do it? Let’s say you want to explore a particular field to figure out your next best career move.
- Make a list of the people you would like to talk to and why. These should be folks you know at least a little, enough to ask them for a conversation.
- Reach out to the one you are most comfortable with first, by email, and ask them for 10 minutes for an informational interview over coffee or tea. I have almost never been turned down. If the person doesn’t respond, give them another chance by emailing them again. If they don’t respond a second time, assume their lives are just crazy busy, and as much as they would like to, they just can’t help you at this time. Don’t take it personally.
- Arrange the meeting time and place according to make it as convenient as possible for them.
- Make sure to look the person up on the web, on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social media sites to get a sense of where they are at in their lives.
- Prepare two or three questions ahead of time. Most of the time, you just need one to get things rolling, e.g., I’d love to hear a bit about how you got to where you are today.
- Buy the coffee or tea for them.
- Before you leave them, ask them if they know of one or two other people they could connect you with. Most of the time, names will come up in the course of the conversation, but if not, ask at the end. Be sure to find out whether you can reach out directly to those people or you need to be introduced to them by email or phone by your interviewee first.
- Thank them immediately by email and compliment them by letting them know how much you learned from them and how grateful you are for the time and additional contacts.
Given the statistics, if you aren’t doing informational interviewing, you are missing out on a great opportunity to enhance your chances of getting to the next step in your life and career by quite a lot.