So what is an informational interview?For those of you who have never heard of this type of interview, it’s pretty much what the name implies. Except, unlike the traditional job interview that most of you are familiar with, informationals are interviews that YOU conduct to gather information or find potential contacts for job search or career change.But there’s one more important difference. While a job interview has a single goal … to get you the job … an informational interview is rarely about any one job. It’s about gathering information and making a connection, and should ideally have at least some of the following goals:
- To find out more about the company, field of interest, potential career paths, or specific required skills / aptitudes /strategies (but nothing that could be found by just doing your research on the internet)
- To make a real human connection if at all possible so the person will want to help you
- To find more people to speak with or things to research further
- To make sure that it doesn’t seem as if you are there solely (and desperately) to snoop out a job
- To leave a good enough impression that if the person does hear of a job, s/he will think of you
How NOT to handle an informational interviewI hope this this story from my own career past will help. Many years ago I was between jobs and not sure what I wanted next. So I contacted someone I knew, and he agreed to meet with me. He had been a top manager in a company I worked for, and was now the head of a well-known non-profit.What I did wrong:
- I came to the interview ready to wing it. After all, we’d spoken before now and then in the past.
- I hadn’t thought ahead of time about the kinds of questions I should ask.
- I hadn’t thought through how I might engage him in my exciting goal, since I didn’t actually have one at that point.
- I used this interview to help me explore general ideas, but he wasn’t the right person for that.
- I didn’t try to establish a connection by asking about him and what was going on there, beyond a quick “how do you like this new position?”
- I didn’t connect where I wanted to go (still didn’t know) with what he was doing or had done in the past or why I was even talking to HIM.
- I launched into MY needs and gave him no good reason to become further invested in me and my quest.
- After that, it was ALL about me. “Help me. Please please please.” Although not quiet that bad, needy is NOT engaging.
- Probably worst of all, I didn’t frame my request for help in a way that made it easy for him to think about whom he might know that could help, as opposed to thinking about why I was keeping him from a very busy day.
- Although I was grateful that he agreed to meet with me, in the end I took his time without showing I respected it enough.
- And I didn’t even send a thank you because I was embarrassed how badly it went. BAD mistake. A thank-you note can help leave a warm last impression, even if the initial one was not all it could have been.
So what SHOULD you do?Here are some basics of the informational interview. I hope they will help you avoid the mistakes I made way back then, before I even understood what informational interviews really are!
First … whom to contact and where to find themYou want to find someone who knows about the field you’re interested in or about a company/ organization you especially want to work for or can give you a good picture of the industry.You can find people through your personal networks (former co-workers, former bosses, fellow alumni, former professors, folks who are members of organizations you belong to, family, friends, etc.) as well as online social networks, like LinkedIn or by doing some determined investigative googling.You can meet people at industry conferences, university events, courses you are taking to brush up related skills, waiting in line at the supermarket, and even at social gatherings, where I once met a person who helped me get to a new job that shifted my entire career. But that’s another story.You can also do some snooping and contact people directly using a “cold call” letter of interest.
During the interview itself
- Come in having done thorough research about the person, the company, and the industry / field.
- Smile warmly and extend your hand.
- Express gratitude to them for taking the time to meet with you. Maybe add that you’ve been looking forward to this if it feels comfortable.
- If there is a strong interest in something or organization in common, you can mention it here. (Use your judgment of course.)
- Explain a little about you and your goals as they relate to this meeting.
- Then ask questions (prepared ahead of time and ones that arise in the moment as you converse) about the person, the company, the industry / field (in general and specifics).
- Ask for any advice they might like to offer from their own experiences.
- Ask for referrals for other people to contact or places to look.
- Again, thank them for your time and ask if you may stay in touch.