Are you wondering about informational interviews and what to do when you get them? You’re not alone. There’s a lot of talk about how informational interviews can help your job search, but not everyone knows what that really means – or why they matter.
Whether you’re looking to make a career change or looking for a new job, informational interviews can play an important role in the process. They help move you along toward to your desired career goal, and can also get you in doors you might otherwise never know about!
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
But remember … an informational interview is not a job interview. If you treat it that way and zero in on “the job”, you may lose out on a chance to create a long-term relationship, the real secret to ongoing career success.
How NOT to handle an informational interview
I 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.
And so I walked away from this experience with nothing useful – except a great lesson to share with all of you.
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 them
You 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.
Feeling nervous is normal
One of my clients recently asked me why the person would even want to meet with them. It’s a good question that maybe can help you think about the interview from a different perspective. They also expressed nerves about taking the person’s time without making good use of it.
Nerves are normal, even in informational interviews. You can even think of the first few as “practice” and just making a nice connection with an interesting person. Show your enthusiasm for the field and / or company, and have a few clear, targeted questions for the person. And remember to show warm gratitude.
Most people want to help you. And they enjoy sharing their experiences and advice. You just need to make it easier for them by respecting their time and coming prepared. And remember … there’s no right or wrong way. At the very least, try to plant a seed of interest in you and your goals.
A few final thoughts
In the end, no matter who the person is, this is just two people talking. They will have felt the time was spent well if you have done your research, ask good questions, bring your most positive (warm not electrified) personality, and really listen when they speak.
Remember (usually towards the end) to ask nicely for more people to call or places to explore. Also ask if you may keep them informed of your progress.
Make sure to thank them in the moment, but also send a thank you note after the informational interview. Mention one or two things you discussed, ask them to keep you in mind if they hear of anything that might help your search, and again thank them and say you will keep them informed.
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