I’ve always been taught that when approaching someone for an informational interview, you should offer to take them out for a coffee (or bring them a hot drink if you’re coming to them). Whether or not they take you up on the offer isn’t really the point. It’s just a small gesture of good will and appreciation for their time. What on Earth do we do when we’re under lockdown because of COVID-19? This is going to continue for a good few months, at least.
As I said, coffee is just a gesture really, but it feels so weird — so rude — to leave it out and still ask for someone’s time. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is pretty fed up with online meetings and endless work phone calls, and asking them for a slice of time feels like a huge imposition. On the other hand, it feels quite presumptuous to comment on how frazzled everyone is because maybe they are doing okay and that would be rude? Or worse, saying basically, “Hey I know everything sucks right now and we’re all going through hell but could you just ignore that and talk to me anyway?”
I suppose the problem is that “coffee” for the person giving their time under normal circumstances means a break, a walk to a café, a change of scene, a hot drink and a chat with a (hopefully) pleasant stranger — overall a mostly positive thing. I’m not sure what can match or even approximate that when we’re all tied to our desks. Should I even be trying to find something else to offer? If not, how do I ask without sounding like a jerk?
Well, here’s the thing: the coffee was never a big draw. It was a social nicety, yes, but really just a way of showing politeness and appreciation, not the reason anyone agreed to do informational interviews. Don’t worry about the coffee.
But you’re right that when you strip away the social niceties, you’re really just saying, “Could you carve out time from your schedule to talk to a stranger?”
But that’s okay! It’s not that different from what you were saying before. The people who were willing to talk with you before the pandemic aren’t going to be less likely to do it now just because there’s no coffee or change of scenery involved. We were always doing it for the satisfaction of helping an appreciative stranger with some overlapping professional interests.
What might be different now is that some people are more frazzled or have less bandwidth. But that’s not true of everyone, and it’s not a reason not to ask. People will say no if they want to say no. You’re not doing anything rude by making the request.
You really only need to do the things you always needed to do. You just have to to lean into them more right now. That means:
∙ Explain why you’re contacting this person, specifically, to give some context for your request. If you can say something flattering about their work or their career, that’s good to do. (Just make sure it’s genuine! It’s really clear when people are offering up praise in a perfunctory, fill-in-the-box kind of way.)
∙ Be clear up-front about how much time you’re asking the person for, both so that they know what they’d be saying yes to and also to signal that if they agree, you won’t expect their commitment to be open-ended.
∙ Before you contact the person, spend some time really thinking about what you genuinely want to know from them — and then include a few of those questions in your email, so they have a good understanding of what you’re looking for, whether they can be helpful, and whether they want to spend their time that way. For example, you might ask what the person wishes they had known about the field before starting in it, or how new regulations on X are playing out for people in the industry, or about a specific worry you have about the field, or whether you’re being realistic in the roles you’re targeting, and so on.
∙ Be very explicit about your appreciation, both before and afterward. Make it clear you’re grateful for the person’s time, and tell them afterward specifically how their input helped you. Don’t send a one-sentence, generic “thanks for your time” email afterward — talk specifically about how you expect to be able to use their advice. In many ways, that completes your part of the interaction far more than coffee ever did, because that’s the part of these exchanges that makes doing them so satisfying.
Including a few of these questions in your initial email shows that you’ve done real thinking and will be a good investment of time. That’s especially useful because people who get asked to do informational interviews often have had the experience of making room in their calendar, only for the requester to show up and ask questions like “so what’s this field all about?” or come with no pre-thought-out agenda at all.
And while your letter was asking about informational interviews in particular — i.e., meetings designed to help you learn more about a field you’re not yet in — the same advice applies if you’re approaching people you don’t know well for more general networking too. In fact, in some ways, general networking is the harder of the two right now since those are conversations that really did rely on meeting up in-person to form a connection, whereas informational interviews have always been well-suited for a phone call. But now that networking has to be virtual, all of this same advice will help: Be specific, show you’ll use the other person’s time well, and be appreciative. And remember, too, that everyone is in the same boat right now. You’re not doing anything weird by asking to connect remotely! It’s normal, for now.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.