“Picking someone’s brain” needs an update. Here’s how to actually get an “informational interview” in today’s world.
For years it seems that career counselors have praised one, simple trick above all others as the best way to break into an industry: Conducting “informational interviews” with industry leaders. This advice makes perfect sense: The job-seeker gets face-time with someone in a leadership position, the leader makes a time investment in you (which may make them more psychologically inclined to want to help you land a job), and, of course, one stands to gain first-hand information about their hopeful industry. There are a lot of theoretical wins here!
Except there’s just one obstacle – actually getting the time investment required of that informational interview.
As a person who produces content online and has a public email address for communications, I get LOTS of requests to “pick my brain.” While I am flattered and grateful that I may be considered a valuable connection (I hope!), I don’t flatter myself enough to overlook how easy I am to contact after a simple Google search. The fact is, although I genuinely want to help, I cannot possibly respond to each of requests that I receive…or I would no longer have a job to talk about!
The concept of the “informational interview” needs an update (or at least a refresher) for the Information Age. In the past, when it was a tad more difficult to find information about professionals, just getting contact details could be the symbolic “in” that demonstrated a bit of effort and ingenuity. That’s not the case anymore. Contacting professionals is much easier for those seeking aid and, consequently, managing time and weeding through requests may be harder for professionals due to the increased volume.
I’ve compiled some of my own thoughts and have also been asking around to other professionals for better practices when it comes to scoring a helpful connection, and several “If they only knew…” themes have emerged from these conversations. Here are seven things to do if you want to land an informational interview:
(Spoiler alert: The web doesn’t remove the need for you to put in some effort.)
1) Know that you aren’t the only one asking for attention
This has probably always been true of informational interviews. However, please don’t forget how easy email addresses and contact information are to come by in today’s world…or you may risk underestimating the volume of requests that your interview target receives. This is especially relevant if you are reaching out to someone with a public email address, as the effort required to contact these people is very low (which can make their inboxes much more crowded and your aim to differentiate yourself and score some time much harder).
2) Show (don’t merely tell) your shared passion
When someone is getting multiple requests for their time from all sorts of individuals, it is difficult to distinguish those persons truly interested in making a meaningful connection from others thinking, “Well, why don’t I just shoot this-person-whose-job-sounds-cool an email?”
A way to rise above this – especially if you are contacting someone who is particularly active on social media – is to foster a virtual relationship with the potential interviewee before contacting them to ask for their time or input. Comment on their posts, tweet your thoughts with them, leave messages or post interesting/relevant content on their Facebook page (if it’s public). If you’re showing that you’re a member of their community and have similar interests, then you’ll have a much easier time telling them that you do when you reach out to ask for time – and chances are they may already have an idea of who you are. (Pro-tip: Don’t go crazy here. Just a few comments or interactions can go a long way.)
3) Having someONE in common is (still) often more meaningful than having someTHING in common
Having a shared interest or experience isn’t generally unique and – while it may be a conversation starter – it may not provide the catalyst for turning an communication into a meeting or detailed response. For instance, having the same graduate degree may not be enough to differentiate you among a sea of similarly credentialed recent graduates.
Having someone in common, however, may well do the trick – especially if your common connection to that individual reaches out on your behalf to the interviewee. Connections to people make the world turn – online and offline. This is the entire premise of LinkedIn for good reason.
The vast majority of the “informational interviews” that I accept are at the request of someone that I already know. After talking with several professionals, I learned quickly that this is often the case for them as well. Keep in mind that though we live in a world where it is relatively easy to find shared passions or experiences (i.e. a same degree or university) thanks to the web, knowing folks (and getting to know folks) still makes the world turn.
4) Offer something in return (by being interesting)
I don’t mean buy coffee…I mean, yes, offer to buy the coffee as a gesture, but know that the person with whom you hope to meet likely values their time exponentially more than a free cup of coffee. What I mean by “offer something in return” is “be interesting.” It’s much easier to invest one’s time to help someone else if the beneficiary of this investment is able to contribute something valuable to the conversation. Let the potential interviewee see how meeting with you might also be useful to them.
The world is turning at an exciting pace and smart leaders seem to understand this. Even if you are comparatively inexperienced and trying to break into an industry, there’s usually an interesting perspective that you can bring to the table.
5) Know exactly what you are hoping to learn and make sure that the interviewee can actually help
Keep in mind the expertise of the person with whom you’re meeting. By this, I don’t simply mean “make sure you’re discussing the same industry,” but, rather, make sure that you’re not actually seeking the advice of a different type of person – like a professional career coach. Sharing your story may be alright, but be careful not to put your interviewee in a situation in which they may not feel comfortable providing you with advice. If it is clear in your pitch that your “questions about the industry” are actually “deeply personal inquiries about your potential life path,” you may not get a response.
The web makes available sufficient information that – with just a mere moment of research – you can learn enough about your interviewee to focus your conversation…and also find someone else to talk to (like a friend or career counselor) if they better fit your needs.
An okay question for an informational interview: What graduate degrees, if any, do you think provide an advantage in the industry?
A not-okay question for an informational interview: These are my general interests. What graduate degree should I get?
6) Know when you should actually be paying someone directly for their time
Ah, the cardinal sin of “brain picking!” I’m hearing of more and more thought leaders charging “coffee fees” because of this kind of “brain picking” abuse.
When you hop on the phone with someone under the premise of an “informational interview” and, instead, steer the conversation into the specifics of your (or your company’s) individual circumstances, you may be asking for free services. This is a big no-no! At best, it is disrespectful.
Presumably, you wouldn’t seek an “informational interview” with a CPA…and then proceed to ask their assistance with your tax return. Nor would you seek a similar session with an architect…and then ask them to redline your house plans. Yet, for some reason, many people seem perfectly OK with the notion of seeking free counsel on matters pertaining to business operations, marketing, and communications.
In general, you should expect to pay for expertise and talent. Be honest with yourself before reaching out: If what you are seeking is specific expertise that is unique to your situation, then you probably don’t want to interview that expert. You probably want to hire them.
7) Time is money (and ease of communications do not change that)
We all need to be judicious with our time. Time – both yours and that of the interviewee – is a precious resource, and ought to be valued as such. When you request an informational interview (or even a thoughtful email response), you are actually asking for an investment. That email that you casually send to request an informational interview is actually a sales pitch for an investment in you and your future. I think if folks thought about this a bit harder, the emails they send may be quite different.