Welcome to Inside the Hill! On this page, you’ll find my musings about all sorts of random aspects of working in the second National Zoo known as Congress, from how to get a job to how to advocate for an issue effectively. Enjoy!
The Informational Interview.
When I was first searching for a job on Capitol Hill, I wanted to talk to anyone and everyone with a gold eagle on their business card. I emailed family friends, asked for connections through my college professors, neighbors, and parents of my friends, and literally cold called House offices from my home state to set up times to talk. In the end, after more than forty such conservations, my first job came completely unrelated to those conversations… at least not directly.
Now that I sit on the other side of the table, I will talk to anyone who asks. Simply put, I love it and am happy to try and help people sitting in the same seat I was not too long ago. Below are my observations and advice from years of taking part in this song and dance.
- Know Your Objective: The informational interview has two objectives, both of which can be accomplished in fifteen minutes. First, you are trying to get information about the job you want – hence the “informational” part. Second, you want to leave a positive impression on the person you are talking to. If you are trying to get a Staff Assistant job, there is only so much to learn. However, if the staffer you are talking to hangs up thinking “wow, she was really bright” then when you come back two months later asking them to forward your resume, they’ll remember you. Make sure to present yourself and articulate, thoughtful, personable, and well-read.
- Control The Conversation: There is nothing worse than sitting down with a recent college graduate who just stares at you as if you’re going to be some fountain of knowledge they just have to turn on. If you asked for the meeting, you need to run it. Start by thanking them and proactively saying “let me tell you a little bit about myself.” They don’t know you, so don’t make them ask for your background. Follow up by asking the same of them. Bring with you a checklist of things you want to know and work your way through. If they say something interesting, dig deeper even if it takes you off course for a minute. Silence is your enemy.
- Do Your Homework: Nothing leaves a bad taste in my mouth more than someone who asks me a question that could have been answered by a quick google search. The informational interview is about establishing a connection with someone and gaining inside knowledge. If you are interviewing a Chief of Staff you should know who their member is, what district they are from, and what committees they work on. Use this information to shape your questions, don’t use your questions to find this information.
- Always Open Ended: First rule of interviews: people love to talk about themselves. Avoid asking yes or no questions. Say things like “tell me about…” or “what was x like..” People get more comfortable the more they talk, and the more they talk the more likely they’ll say something interesting that you can follow up on. The more an interview is like a conservation, the more likely the staffer will walk away thinking highly of you.
- Ask Away: This is your chance. The person agreed to sit down with you. If they had a really cool position in the Obama White House, ask them about it! If they don’t want to share, they won’t, but you never know. One of my biggest regrets was sitting down with someone who held a critical position with Hillary Clinton and utterly failing to ask anything of substance. Present me wishes past me had read this post.
- The Follow Up: This is the single most notable way you can screw up a good informational interview. Sending a prompt follow up email is much like driving a car without getting into an accident. If you arrive safely, no one will congratulate you. But if you crash, everyone will notice. The follow up “thank you” email is like the ribbon on a present. It gives you an opportunity to give your closing speech one last time (always attach your resume) and establish that you will contact them again if you need help. People appreciate being flattered, and a simple “thank you” will do the trick. If you don’t email and then three months later want their help? Well, good luck.