Coffee Talk: Informational Interview (Part II – “The Ask”)

DSC_0235During college I interned at a San Francisco non-profit, and my co-workers convinced me that DC would the best place to look for a job when I graduated.  I had tons of close relatives in DC and I had always wanted to live on the east coast, so I packed up my bags and headed east.  My co-workers in San Francisco had given me some great DC contacts for informational interviews, so I quickly emailed them all before I arrived.  In each request I wrote a brief bio about my experience and interests, asking politely and professionally for informational interviews – seemed easy enough.  Among the few responses I received, I got this email:

“The letter has a bit of a “cut and paste” feel to it, but I would nonetheless be happy to speak with you.  Please send a cv and then after that, we can set up a time.”

I can still remember how humiliated I felt when reading this.  I quickly checked to see if I had accidentally cut and pasted something incorrect – like the company name, or the individual’s name – but no, it had all been accurate.  Then I got upset, thinking, “How can she say that??! How does she know it was ‘cut and pasted’? She has no proof!”  Then it finally began to set in – it wasn’t that I had put incorrect details, it was that I had put nothing specific at all to the email.  My email was just generic information about myself.  I was asking someone to take time out of their busy day to talk to me, when I wouldn’t even take time to write a genuinely personalized email.

Needless to say I changed my ways.  And now, after having received many requests for informational interviews (and as I continue to make requests myself) I have a simple set of rules I try and follow when approaching someone I don’t know for their time and advice.  It can feel a little time consuming, but I can assure you it will be appreciated:

Never cut and paste, ever:

I know this is a hard one – it can be time consuming, and pretty damn redundant.   It isn’t that you should write the same exact thing twice (or 32 times for that matter), but it ensures you minimize any language that could be cut and pasted.  If you have a sentence that says,

“I would love to learn more about you and your company’s exciting work.”

You should delete it. Requests like this can seem impersonal, making the reader less compelled to help you out. Good people who make effort to connect others appreciate seeing effort on your side as well.  Something like this would be better:

“It would be great to learn more about what you do as a Senior Product Tester at Hair Plugs for Men, Ltd., and what it is like to work for a company that so effectively bridges men’s insecurity with science.”  See, so much better!

Make it about them, not you:

This means including minimal information about you in the body of the email.  If people are interested to learn more, they can open up your CV.  People are more interested in the why you want to talk to them, rather than who is requesting. Also, people like to feel flattered that their position, knowledge, and company are worth seeking out.  Making clear why you want to talk to them specifically firmly values their insight, and shows them that you did your homework with researching their specific job and career. If you have a sentence like this:

“It would be interesting to hear about your work in the entertainment industry.”

Again, delete it and try something more like this:

“I am hoping to learn more about what it is like to be a writer for 30 Rock, and how you got started before you ended up with such a great show on NBC. As someone just starting out, it would be great to hear what kinds of things you did with comedy writing before, and if you think sitcom writing would be a good industry for someone like me to try and break into.”

Keep it short, and include your resume/CV:

Again, your request should not be more than a few sentences including key information, such as:

  • How you are connected to them (i.e. “My cousin Sandy said I should contact you…” or “I found your contact information on the International Miming Academy Alumni Page…”)
  • Brief description of yourself 1-2 sentences maximum (see above)
  • Why you want to talk to them
  • Your availability (in case you are going to be somewhere for a short time period)
  • Your resume/CV (attached)

8 thoughts on “Coffee Talk: Informational Interview (Part II – “The Ask”)

  1. Absolutely love the blog and in particular this 3 part series. So informative and well written – really helpful for someone like me who is looking to return to work AND, fabulous photos of you and India!!

  2. Thanks Anj – it means so much coming from you! So excited to see what you do next – but just promise that no matter what it is, you will still post plenty of pictures of Elan on facebook :)!

  3. Hey Deb-
    I just re-read “The Ask” section..just sent out my first informational interview request! Love the guidance. 🙂

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