A wise career counselor once said, "The process begins with who you know. The job is gotten from who knows you."
Truth is, a successful job search or career advancement also depends on what you know. The "what" is the information and knowledge you have about a particular industry, career or job market.
Now link the two concepts together and you have the basis of networking. Networking involves talking to people and gathering information. Many job seekers are nervous about networking because they are uncomfortable asking for a job. A better approach to networking is to set up informational interviews with prospective contacts. In the informational interview, you do not ask the contact for a job. Instead you ask for information that might lead to a job or advancement within your career.
An informational interview is a good approach to use when you are just starting out in a particular career or changing career directions. It takes the pressure off the job seeker, as well as the other person. Most people are more than happy to discuss what they do for a living.
I learned the process of conducting an informational interview through an outplacement service and career counselor. After 21 years in the field of business administration, I found my job downsized due to a corporate merger. Unwilling to relocate, I decided to use the opportunity to pursue a long-term dream of freelance writing.
Where to start? I asked myself. The first lesson I learned from the career counselor is the importance of networking. I already knew how to "network" from my years of business experience, but she explained the concept of using the informational interview as a technique since I was changing careers. The counselor said it might take longer to transition into a new career because of the time it takes to learn more about the field. The informational interview was the ideal tool for someone in my situation.
The career counselor provided me with two names to start -- an editor of a trade publication and an experienced freelance writer. In turn, these contacts led to more contacts. With each new lead, I followed through to schedule either a face-to-face meeting or a phone conversation. I discovered that the initial contact with a prospective interviewee was less stressful knowing I was not asking them specifically for a job. In most instances, they were more than willing to meet with me.
A good approach is to ask friends, relatives, coworkers or professional contacts about possible interview candidates. You can phone or send a letter or e-mail stating the purpose of your request and how you obtained their name. Many of the editors and writers I met with were more than happy to spend time discussing their careers. They tend to recognize themselves in your struggle and will actually go out of their way to help.
Establish the length of the visit beforehand. Setting limits helps put the other person at ease, knowing that you are not trying to take up too much of their valuable time. Keep the initial contact brief and to the point.
Schedule a mutually acceptable meeting point, usually midway between the two of you. I find that meeting for coffee is more conducive to a good discussion than meeting for a meal. Remember to keep it simple.
You should allow for about 30 to 45 minutes of discussion time. Preparing a list of questions is essential. Be very clear in what information you are seeking and be prepared to ask very specific questions. Any homework you can do prior to your meeting is helpful. Visit Web sites or read publications in which your contact's work is featured.
I usually begin by asking about their background. It helps to get the conversation flowing and makes for a good transition to the next part of the discussion. I find that most of the time, the conversation takes on a direction of its own, but it is still a good idea to have those pointed questions written down so you can refer to them as needed.
Other topics to discuss might include training and education, qualifications and skills, likes and dislikes about the career, challenges, payment ranges and available opportunities.
When your predetermined time has come and gone, mention it and be prepared to leave. Most often, they will continue the discussion. Don't be afraid to let enthusiasm and passion for your writing career show. It will validate the mutual connection you share with your interviewee and establish a supportive bond.
This is where you shine if you did your homework. During the course of the conversation, I usually find many opportunities to share information that can be of assistance to the other person. Sometimes it is as simple as an update on what your mutual contact is doing these days. Sometimes it is just being an active listener and showing appreciation and respect.
It is at this point that I usually introduce my resume and writing samples. I make it clear that the resume is for them to learn more about my background and not specifically in reference to a job. I tell them to feel free to pass the information along if the opportunity arises. Most are eager to read your writing samples. They can usually tell right away the extent of your abilities. This is the time when additional contacts may be offered to you. Accept any and all names graciously. You can later decide if a particular contact can be of further help.
Always take notes during the conversation. This will show your interest in what they are saying, as well as give you a handy reference when your meeting is over. I type all my notes into a journal log on my computer as soon as possible after the discussion.
Always follow up with a timely thank you letter as soon as possible after your meeting. If you can, enclose some new information your networking contact may find helpful, such as an interesting Web site or pertinent book title you think they would enjoy. The give and take creates a bond and helps cement a continuing relationship.
One experienced freelance writer I interviewed said she appreciates these type meetings now even more than when she was just starting out. She said there is always at least one thing you can use -- one thought, one idea. She said that every writing assignment she ever got was through someone she knows.
Informational interviews have proved invaluable in my writing endeavors. In just two short months, I parlayed networking contacts into several paying writing assignments, none of which started out as a specific request for a job. I am now on regular assignment for a local community newspaper, and have sold articles to corporate publications and online e-zines.
In fact, the assignments are coming in fast and furious, and leave me little time to conduct additional informational interviews. I still try to schedule these meetings at least once or twice a month, though. Freelance writing is as much about marketing and networking as it is about "writing," and in my experience, the informational interview has proved to be a great marketing tool.
Copyright © 2001 Terri Mrosko
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.