I had been living in Indianapolis for a year, working as the crisis communication director for the state health department, when I realized I didn’t know anyone in the city, other than my co-workers. I wanted to break into the marketing world, but also knew better than to try to beat my head against the fortress walls that seemed to surround it.
I didn’t know anyone to help me, so I thought I’d do something audacious: I emailed the CEO of the city’s largest PR firm. He was a columnist in our local business newspaper, and we shared a lot of the same ideas and habits as fellow writers.
I introduced myself, and asked if he would be available to talk with me so I could learn about the industry and my new hometown. I was surprised when I received a reply a couple hours later, inviting me to his office. As we talked, Bruce told me how he got his start and what ultimately led him to open his own firm. He told me about people to talk to, traps to avoid, and what kinds of things I should be looking for and asking about.
Bruce said he was happy to meet with me, because this was how he got his own start when he moved to Indianapolis nearly 15 years before. He did informational interview after informational interview, always asking the same kinds of questions. After three months, Bruce had three job offers and enough offers of freelance work to keep him busy 40 hours a week, all without applying for a single job.
He ended up running the PR department for a local hospital, which led to him starting his own agency a few years later. Because of what his own informational interviews led to, he always agreed to meet with people who asked for the same thing.
Bruce has since become a good friend, and we still meet on occasion to discuss writing, PR, and social media. And that meeting taught me all about the importance of informational interviews myself, and what it can do for networking and personal branding.
If you want to use informational interviews, here are five tactics you need to master:
- Ask how the other person got started. Believe it or not, a lot of people forget this. I’ve had dozens of people come to me for the same interviews, and only a few asked me about my beginnings. We learn through stories, even better than getting straight up advice. Ask people to tell you their stories and you’ll glean some valuable lessons about what to do and not do. Most people’s lives can serve as morality plays to our own lives, so take advantage of that.
- Take careful notes. If nothing else, you look like you’re paying attention. But more importantly, the people you talk to will interrupt their story to say “you need to speak to so-and-so.” Write that name down, and anything else they tell you about that person.
- Never mention open positions at their company. Otherwise that sounds like the only thing you’re looking for, and they’ll feel like you took advantage of them. It may be tempting. You may even be the ideal fit for that position. But don’t do it. If they mention it, just say, “I saw that on your website, but I didn’t want to mention it because I didn’t want you to think that’s why I was here. My goal was to meet with you, not ask for a job.”
- Always, always, ALWAYS ask “Who else should I talk to?” This is the chance to tap into their own networks. Most people will just suggest you call them and “mention my name.” More often than not, this is not helpful. Ask for email introductions. Warm introductions like this are better than cold calls. If they’re not willing to do it, then call or email the person anyway. Be sure to mention the other person’s name early, not at the end. They may discard your email if they don’t know why you’re reaching out to them.
- Stay in touch. Some of these people, just by virtue of their being influencers in their field and the community, could be powerful mentors and allies. Keep in touch with them via email, let them know what you’re doing, and get together for coffee or lunch every 3 – 6 months. If the relationship progresses, make it a monthly thing. Ask them to be a mentor and try to learn as much as possible from them. (Read Keith Ferrazzi’s books Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back for more on this kind of networking and mentoring.)
The informational interview is a great way to start building the foundations of a strong network that opens up all new kinds of opportunities you’d otherwise spend years trying to build. Be bold, be brave, and even be a little audacious. Reach out to someone you might never be able to get ahold of if you were a freelancer, salesperson, or job hunter.
Find this person on LinkedIn or Twitter, or send an email, and invite them to coffee. Tell them you just want to have an informational interview, so you can learn more about them, the industry, and the community. And see what happens from there.
The worst they can say is no. But the best they can do can be life changing.
Erik Deckers is the owner of Professional Blog Service, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing.