If you’re good at what you do, it’s not surprising that you might receive requests from individuals interested in informational interviews with you to “pick your brain.”
Sure, it can certainly feel flattering to be recognized as an expert in your field – someone whose ideas and insights are coveted. But responding to such requests requires careful consideration.
First and foremost, your time is as coveted as those insights. So before you agree to sit down for a coffee with someone, even virtually, it’s important to keep the following in mind.
Here’s how to gracefully respond to an informational interview request and make the most of the time and energy you lend to helping someone better understand your career or company.
Assess your availability and interest.
Before you actually agree to an informational interview, first take a moment to think about whether or not you actually have enough time to give it your full attention.
Of course, your attention also requires some level of interest.
If you have too much on your plate, it’s perfectly okay to say no. Likewise, if you don’t think you could actually help the person asking for it or you don’t believe that their intentions sit well with you, you don’t have to agree to it. Instead, you can kindly let them know your schedule is too busy.
You can also offer to point them in another direction, share resources that could help them instead, or agree to answer some quick questions over email.
Clarify what exactly the person is seeking.
When someone asks to sit down and “pick your brain,” it could mean many things.
Understanding exactly what kind of insights they’re seeking can help you both make the most of your time together. For example, you don’t want to waste time chit-chatting about your specific role within the company if they’re actually interested in learning about your company’s culture because they’re looking at another open position.
You should seek clarification to pinpoint their desires and tailor your time accordingly. You can even ask them to send you some questions beforehand so you can do your best to prepare for the interview and maximize your time.
If you don’t have answers to every question, this also buys you time to connect with colleagues to get answers – or it tells you upfront that you’re not the right person, so you can point them in another direction.
Get to know their background.
Like any interview, knowing who you will be sitting across the table or desk from is key.
If you want the interview to go smoothly, you should both know a thing or two – at the very least – about each other. While you may not have the time or interest to do extensive background research, it’s worth asking the person for a little more information, like a resume or LinkedIn profile.
When you know more about them, including where they are now and where they want to be, you have a better shot at helping them. Plus, you might find common connections, experiences, or interests that could make the interview more personable and enjoyable for both of you.
Set boundaries at the beginning.
Managing expectations from the start is critical to conducting a successful informational interview.
Communicate your availability and preferred setting. Establish a specific time frame that works for you with a hard stop so you don’t end up taking too much of your time.
Setting boundaries can help you manage your day and workload while ensuring that you also prevent any potential misunderstandings for the other person.
Focus on active listening.
During the interview, make sure that you’re not doing all the talking.
Sure, you’re there to share your insight and experiences. But you also want to express a genuine interest in their questions, concerns, and curiosities. By practicing active listening, you ensure that the interview is a two-way street.
You’ll both get more out of a conversation that flows easily instead of just a game of questions and answers. This way, you can provide more thoughtful responses. Plus, you might also learn something new from them that also supports your own professional growth.
Follow up after the interview.
While it’s likely that the person who asked you for an interview will follow up with you, if they don’t, you can also follow up first with resources you discussed or the next steps, if any.
For example, if you spoke about books or seminars that you recommended during the interview, you should follow up with some links to those resources. If you mentioned other people at your company with whom they should connect, you can follow up with the next steps to put them in touch.
A follow-up message demonstrates your commitment to their success, and that support alone can go a long way for them.
The bottom line
If someone asks you for an informational interview, don’t be so quick to respond with a yes or no.
First, stop and think about whether or not you have the time or know-how to actually help this person, and make an informed decision about agreeing to it.
If you do agree to an informational interview, follow the steps above to make sure you maximize your time and the impact of the interview. With a little bit of clarification, preparation, and some clear boundaries, you can give a great informational interview and help make a lasting impact on someone’s career journey.