Informational Interviewing strategies for the Introverted and/or Socially Anxious

by Lauren Bourdages, Head Editor, INALJ Ontario

laurenbourdagesInformational Interviewing strategies for the Introverted and/or Socially Anxious*

*Tips will work for anyone but this is my frame of reference!

I am actually an ambivert, I am also someone  who has moderate social anxiety (not clinically diagnosed mind you), which has actually gotten better as I get older, but I still have things that make me really anxious, just not as many. When I was in high school, I couldn’t even get up in front of my classmates to deliver a presentation without having an emotional and mental meltdown, now though? Well I went through a BEd program before deciding that I preferred library instruction to classroom instruction so presenting and speaking in front of groups of people is something I have figured out how to handle since then obviously. There are some things that are still especially hard for me though, like pretty much anything to do with networking. It’s really hard for me to ask people for help, so even though I know networking is the key to getting ahead in any industry now, and I know that people in the LIS industry are always eager to help others in the industry, networking is really hard for me.

People who meet me usually can’t tell at first that I’m not an extrovert, that’s because I like to talk to people…just not about certain subjects, anything that I feel like they’ll judge me about, at least not until I’m comfortable with them, and that can take a long time to happen, and with certain people I meet it never happens. When you need time to get to know people before you can really open up to them it can make networking hard, and getting over that need to be comfortable is scary and that’s what sets my social anxiety off, it’s what can make me nervous during interviews too. My mentor pointed out that I needed to be doing informational interviews at the very least, so I wanted to share with you all my adventures in informational interviewing so far and share my tricks for dealing with social anxiety so I can also find out your tips and tricks.

1. Don’t start with cold calls to people you’ve never met

Sounds like an obvious suggestion for banishing social anxiety right? Well it never occurred to me that I could do it this way because my understanding of informational interviews was a little bit off. I always thought that the point of an informational interview was to find out about specific companies and try and develop connections with those organisations before you applied. Sure, that’s one application of informational interviewing, but it’s not the broad function of the act, I like the way the UCLA career centre explains what the broad function IS:

“What if you are not sure about your career goals…or you feel that you lack relevant experience and knowledge to get the career position you want. One of the best ways to find out what an industry, company or position is really like is to talk with people in careers you are considering. No one else can give you a better sense of the real life experiences, the challenges and opportunities, the specific and perhaps hidden demands as well as the drawbacks and limitations of the career field.”

More specifically they say it’s “…a highly focused information gathering session with a networking contact designed to help you choose or refine your career path by giving you the “insider” point of view.” When you think about it in those terms it really does make the most sense to start by talking to people you already have some form of connection to. The exercise my mentor had me do was make a list of 8 people who I knew in my area in the industry, but who I’d never sat down and talked to. I want you to start by doing that, it worked for me, and below each name make 3 bullet points: how you know them, their area of expertise, what you hope to learn by picking their brain. Think about former colleagues who worked in different departments/branches, people you met at conferences/workshops, people who serve on the same professional association committees or are active in the same groups as you.

2. Take opportunities that present themselves

In March I interviewed for a part time position with the local Regional Public Library. After the interview I sent my usually follow up email (I prefer follow ups to thank yous) and they told me they would take about 2 weeks to make a decision. When I heard back about the decision I found out I didn’t get the job. I read a lot of job hunting advice blogs and one of the tips that always comes up is to try asking for feedback on your application, so I did. The Hiring Manager was really great, she took the time out to email me some really specific feedback and personalised suggestions for how I could implement the feedback. I took a few days to start to implement  her suggestions and while I was doing that I emailed my mentor and asked her if it would be acceptable/make sense to ask this hiring manager for an informational interview. My mentor agreed that it was a good idea so when I emailed her to say that I’d taken her suggestions I asked if she would mind talking to me on the phone for 15 minutes so I could learn more about her library system and about her career path. She accepted, and the minute she did my anxiety kicked in, I kept it at bay by following another tip from the blogs; I prepared my questions in advance.

It ended up being a great phone chat, my anxiety was easy enough to control because I just reminded myself, I had already met this person once and spoken to her at length during my interview, I already knew she knew about my strengths and weaknesses. Remembering that made it easier and I ended up learning a lot. Like instead of focussing on the fact that I didn’t get the job, I walked away having learned that there had been 130 applicants, and only myself and 3 others had even made the interview cut. That’s a huge accomplishment, and I really don’t fault them for choosing the person they did, she had 8 years of direct experience to my 12 years of indirect experience. If I hadn’t taken the chance to speak to this hiring manager on the phone several weeks after the interview I wouldn’t have found that out, and I wouldn’t have gotten the other valuable tips about her system and her niche that I did.

3. Look for sites/groups that are specifically geared towards networking

I learned about the TEDxUW conference that was being held here in my town about a week before it happened, I also found out they were planning to livestream the entire thing. So I hunkered down for the weekend with the live feed open in one chrome tab and my tweetdeck open in another prepared to listen to some great speakers and hopefully walk away more enlightened than I was before. It turned out to be a really smart move on my part. One of the speakers was Dave Wilkin the founder of a site called Ten Thousand Coffees. I had never heard of this site before and upon hearing the name all I could think was that it was some sort of coffee company, but it isn’t! The site has one specific goal, make it easier for students and young professionals to identify experts in their area of interest and ask them for a meeting all in one place. You know right from the time you create your profile that all of the experts in their database are listed there because they want to be, that they are eager to meet with and talk to those seeking informational interviews. That one simple bit of knowledge does wonders to ease my social anxiety. I signed up right away when I learned about it and tweeted it to all the INALJ-ON Twitter followers. But I didn’t use it right away, when I did decide to though, I found exactly what I was hoping for a Librarian, working in UX Design, in my area! So I set up a meeting with her, which I had to postpone one (strategy 3b. if you’re under the weather it’s best to try and reschedule a meeting!)

4. Prep early so that on the day of you can relax before your meeting

Setting up a meeting is only one part of networking that sets off my social anxiety. The lead up to the actual meeting sets me off too. The more I think about it the more nervous, self conscious, and anxious I get. So I like to make sure that I do all my prep for any meetings or interviews at least a day in advance, that includes getting directions and gathering everything I plan on taking. That way I can spend the time before my meeting on the day of focussing on anything but the meeting until it’s time for me to leave. Usually that means reading a book, because reading always relaxes me. I had my informational interview with the contact I made through Ten Thousand Coffees on Apr. 25th in the mid afternoon, before that I read most of a 500 page novel, which I finished after getting home.

When it comes to the actual prep you want to do a few things. As I mentioned above make sure you know exactly where you’re going and how long it takes to get there, for my informational interview that I did on Apr. 25th we had arranged to meet at a coffee shop I’d never actually heard of so two days before the meeting I happened to be out on errands in that area, so I did a drive-by, it helped make me a little less anxious on the day of because I knew exactly where to go. Next thing to prep is questions, you don’t want to have too many questions because you want the conversation to be more free flowing and less scripted, but you want to have enough prepared that you make sure all the major points you want to hit get covered, here are a few articles with suggestions for questions:

40 Questions to ask in an Informational Interview – from the University of Buffalo

200 Great Informational Interview  Questions to Choose From – from Activate Ed

The Only 10 Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview – by Pete Leibman

Questions To Ask During An Informational Interview – from UC Berkeley

I’ve come to terms with the fact that networking is never going to be completely anxiety free for me, because that’s just the way I’m wired, but at least with these strategies I can mitigate the anxiety and actually get done what needs doing!

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