Q: How do I ask my network for help?

What's the best way to ask people in my network for an informational interview without making it sound like I need a favor? — Mani R.

Great question, Mani! Kudos for understanding the importance of conducting informational interviews. This is one of my favorite — and one of the most overlooked — networking tactics, especially for those who recently graduated college or are considering a career change.

The concept of an informational interview — also known as an informational conversation — was first introduced by Richard N. Bolles, author of the book “What Color is Your Parachute?” In his book, Bolles recommends that job seekers set up interviews with professionals working in their fields of interest to collect more information before choosing a particular career path. The goal of these information-gathering sessions is not to necessarily get a job lead — though that can happen. Instead, the focus of these informal conversations is to gather intel so you can make smarter decisions about your career path.

Related: The 8 Best Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview

Not only is this a great tactic when you're trying to narrow down your career goals or you need help launching a career transition, but it can also be helpful in gaining insight into a prospective employer you're targeting as part of your job search.

How to ask your network for help

Prioritize your connections

Think about your current career goals, taking into account the industry, the line of work, and the employers in which you're interested. Then, take a good look at your first and second connections via LinkedIn to leverage connections during the job search who currently works or previously worked in that field, industry, or for that company. Prioritize those contacts first.

In addition to the people who are directly connected to the industry or company you're pursuing, make a list of the people you consider to be the “social butterflies” among your circle of friends. Malcolm Gladwell, the author of the book “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” refers to these people as powerful “connectors” and an important gateway to other valuable connections. The natural connectors in your personal network, regardless of their industries or professions, will likely be able to introduce you to people you would not meet otherwise.

Be specific

Your network can't help you if they don't know what your job goals are or what type of help you're looking for. Simply stating “I'm looking for a job. Can you help?” won't get you any closer to landing a job. Instead, be thoughtful about who you approach and what you ask for.

For instance, some people in your network might be able to share their experiences working in a particular field or industry, while others can provide insider information on a desirable employer's interview practices. When you reach out to a networking connection for help, be clear with your request.

If you're planning to reach out to someone you don't know personally, make sure your objective is spelled out in your subject line. Here are a few sample subject lines to try out:

  • Looking for advice about the [field or industry]

  • Friend of [mutual acquaintance] who needs your advice

  • Fellow [your industry or function] professional who needs your advice

  • Fellow [your alma mater] grad looking for advice

  • Big fan of your work looking for advice

Ask for a call, not a coffee date

In the past, I always defaulted to the standard informational interview request of “Can I pick your brain over a cup of coffee?” — and I believe the approach is still worth your while when you're reaching out to a friend or close connection from your professional network. There's nothing wrong with catching up over a [virtual networking] cup of coffee and asking for some advice.

However, this type of request is not as effective when you're approaching someone who is practically a stranger. In those cases, you're better off asking for 10 minutes of someone's time over the phone. A 10-minute phone call requires less investment from the other person than a face-to-face (or screen) meeting. As a result, they're more likely to agree to share their pearls of wisdom with you.

Sample networking messages

Hi [Name],

Our mutual friend, [mutual acquaintance], recommended I reach out to you as I'm currently exploring a career change and am interested in learning more about [industry or field]. Based on your profile and what [mutual acquaintance] shared, it's clear you've had a successful a career [at a specific company or in a particular industry or field]!

Would you be open to speaking for 10 minutes next week? I'd love to learn more about your experience [with a specific company or in a particular industry or field].

Thanks in advance for your help. Take care and have a great day.

[Your name]

Click on the following link to check out Danny Rubin's free email samples.

Don't ask for a job

Remember, the goal of an informational interview is not to secure a job lead. While this may occur naturally, it shouldn't be your primary objective. Use this opportunity to pick your contact's brain, learn their personal career story, and share your goals and career narrative as well. As a result, you're sure to receive great career advice and valuable insights into a new field.

Say thank you

The lessons you learned in kindergarten also apply to your job search. As Come Recommended's Heather Huhman points out, manners matter. Thank the person for taking the time to speak with you and follow up with a thoughtful thank-you email within two business days of your conversation.  Click on the following link for three powerful thank-you emails you can write in under 30 seconds.

You need a strong resume to go with your network. Submit yours for a free resume review and we'll tell you where you stand.

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TopResume's career advice expert, Amanda Augustine, regularly answers user questions like the one above from Quora. A certified professional career coach (CPCC) and resume writer (CPRW), Amanda has been helping professionals improve their careers for 15 years.

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