Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt
Yesterday, I talked about how you can use social media tools like Twitter to build a network. Building a network helps you find a job, because you have more people to call upon for help. That’s good. Building a network is an ongoing project though, and sometimes you need a specific, targeted approach at the time an opportunity presents itself.
Back in the mid-1990s, I was about to graduate with a degree in political science. I had dreams of working on Capitol Hill or the White House. I was living in Milwaukee, and I planned to move to Washington, DC as soon as I graduated. I didn’t know a soul there, and I certainly didn’t know anyone who worked on Capitol Hill, so I needed to find a way to break in.
The internet was really in its infancy then, but AOL was huge. You could search for other AOL users via their profile, and back in those days everyone filled out their profile completely, because Dateline NBC hadn’t told us about internet stalkers yet. I searched for people who worked on Capitol Hill, and came up with about 15 of them whose profiles seemed friendly. I sent them an email that read something like this:
I’m a political science student in Milwaukee, and I’m writing to ask for your help.
I’m planning to move to DC in August. I’m looking for insight into what it’s like to work on Capitol Hill—what you like about your job, what you hate, how you got your start, etc. I could also use some help in figuring out where in the DC area I should live, since I’ve never been there.
If you’d be willing to do a sort of informational interview via email, I would really appreciate it. Any insight you can provide would be a huge help.
Of the 15 people I emailed, 13 responded with helpful information. In fact, I met some great people through this exercise, a few of them turned into good friends. I also got amazing insight into what it would be like to work on Capitol Hill, and tons of help in getting interviews.
- Keep it short. You want to be considerate of people’s time.
- Try not to sound like that Nigerian prince who wants money. Make it clear what you’re looking for, and make sure it doesn’t look or sound like spam. If you don’t, they’ll delete it without even reading it. The landscape has changed a lot since the AOL days, and people are more suspicious than they used to be. The first line of your email needs to be especially compelling.
- Don’t ask for a job. Seriously, DON’T ASK FOR A JOB. You’re looking for insight—not a job. People like being asked for their insight and expertise. They don’t like being hit up for money or work. Know the difference. If they end up liking you, they may help get you a job at some point, but you’re only asking for information here.
- Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response. Sometimes the spam filter will eat your email. Sometimes the person has thousands of unread messages and can’t get through them all. Sometimes the person is just too busy.
- Be personable. People like helping a real person. If you have something in common with the person you’re emailing, say so. The person who helped me the most was one whose AOL profile said she liked a particular store. I mentioned that I liked it too, and that I couldn’t wait to get to DC to shop there . She ended up being a good friend (not because of the shopping…but it helped to make a connection that led to a friendship).
This technique doesn’t always work, but it works often enough that it’s worth trying. It sure beats filling out online job applications and waiting for the phone to ring.