Are you still deciding what kind of career you want to launch? Or are you considering making a change to a new career? Informational interviewing can help you determine which careers are – and aren’t – the right fit for you before you take the leap.
What is an Informational Interview?
Although it sounds formal, an informational interview is really just a conversation with a professional working in a field you’re looking to learn more about. A key facet of your career planning, informational interviewing can round out your career exploration after you’ve already established the readily available facts. If you don’t already have someone in your network you can tap into, asking a stranger to grab a coffee and talk about their day job may feel daunting. But remember: most people are happy to spend some time talking about their career and offering advice to aspiring professionals.
Informational Interviews: Benefits
While a cursory online search may arm with you some basic information about an industry, an informational interview provides an opportunity to learn about real life in the field from a professional working in the field currently. Additional benefits include:
- Provides a clear understanding of the skills you’ll need to master to be prepared to work in the field.
- Offers insight into best ways to land your first role in the career field.
- Furthers an understanding of a specific organization within your field of interest.
- Allows you to realize new opportunities you may otherwise not have known about.
- Expands your professional network with contacts in the industry.
- Allows you to ask questions that basic exploration hasn’t answered.
- Provides you with practice interviewing in an informal setting – which may help get some jitters out before a formal job interview, and equips you to be more knowledgeable in a job interview.
How and Who to Ask For an Informational Interview
You should be aspirational in your requests for an interview, but not unrealistic. CEOs of Fortune 100 companies aren’t likely to respond to requests from strangers for a quick chat – but many people in their industries will. Your first step is to list companies you would like to work for, and positions at those organizations that interest you. Ideally, you can meet with someone who fits both criteria; if not, you can hold multiple conversations to ensure both your broader company and specific job role questions are answered.
Try to find people you have some common ground with. LinkedIn presents an easy way to spot shared connections or help find common ground in past educational or work history. Ask your friends, former colleagues, teachers and family for people they can introduce you to.
Once you’ve refined your list of people to request time with, you’ll need to choose the right way to communicate. You can:
- Send a message through LinkedIn
- Send an email
- Asked a shared connection for an introduction
Then, ensure your message has a clear request. A well-crafted message will inspire the reader to respond to you – and even better, to meet with you. Follow these practices to hone your message:
- Let the reader know you need them. Get to the point: you need help. Don’t bury what you’re asking for in a long introduction or rambling approach. Instead, kick off your message with something straightforward: “I’d love your help understanding the retail industry.”
- Mention how you found them. This is a great opportunity to highlight a shared connection, alma mater, or appreciation for their company.
- Present a specific ask. If you send a vague, unspecific request, it’s likely you’ll receive a vague, unspecific response (or no response at all). This means narrowing down not only how much time you’re asking for, but when specifically you would like to meet. You could suggest a time when you’ll be in the area, or ask “do you have 30 minutes to meet me with me this month?” Also, be sure your request is as accommodating as it is specific to ensure it’s easy for the recipient to agree. This can include offering to meet at a convenient location, or offering a few days and asking for a convenient time, or both.
- Get personal. Include your reasons for reaching out this person specifically. Do you have a shared connection who raves about their professional skills? Did you read an article they wrote that resonated with you? Are they living your dream career path? Tell them.
- Be appreciative. Acknowledge that this person is busy, and make sure they know how much you appreciate their time.
- Clarify you aren’t asking for a job. Even if you are actively searching for a job, your informational interview is not the time to ask for you. Ensure your reader understands you’re asking for their expertise and insight – not for her to hire you for a position at the company.
Making the Most of Your Informational Interview
Once you’ve secured some time with a professional in your industry of interest, you want to make sure you take advantage of all the value your informational interview can offer. Follow these rules for making the most of your informational interview:
Do Your Research
Clearly you’re asking for an informational interview so you can learn more about the profession, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come to the conversation with some basic knowledge of the industry. Not only does this demonstrate your interest, but it can also help you ask better questions. Research both the professional you’re meeting and his or her organization, using LinkedIn, Google and the company website. This keeps you from asking questions about things that can easily be found online (like career history or the company’s major clients) and saves time for the things that a search engine can’t provide. If your research turns up some bad press about the company or criticisms of the professional you’re meeting with, steer clear in your conversation.
Kick Off the Conversation
People like talking about themselves. Warm up your contact with an easy question that will get them talking. And, keep it casual. Start with questions like: What is it really like working at your company? What do you think about the new development/technology/product announced? What are you working on right now?
Follow Job Interview Etiquette
We’ve established this isn’t a job interview. But you still need to follow job interview etiquette because this might turn into a job interview later on if you make a good impression. This means dressing appropriately, turning off your phone and showing up early. And don’t overlook the little details in your first impression which include: strong eye contact, a smile, introducing yourself and extending a firm handshake. Make sure you respect their time, even if it means pausing to acknowledge that your time is up.
Don’t Ask For a Job
The HR department facilitates recruiting, and unless you’re hoping to speak with an HR professional to understand his career, you don’t want to be routed to HR at this stage. Even if you are looking for a job, stick to the purpose of the information interview: to gain more information. Your conversation should also focus on gleaning information and should not imply you’re hoping to get a job, as this can make someone feel like you tricked them. Instead, ask for advice. If you impress them so much they ask you about applying for a job, that’s a different story.
Practice your “elevator pitch,” that short introduction of who you are as a professional, because you won’t be the only one asking questions. Along with who you are, practice explaining your interest in the profession and company in a clear, concise way. List the questions you want to ask in advance to keep the conversation going and make sure you don’t miss something important.
Bring Your Resume
If your conversation goes well, your informational interviewee may ask for your resume – and you’ll want to be prepared to hand one over.
Ask About Their Network
Extend the conversation by asking your interviewee who else they would recommend you speak with. This already gives you common ground with these professionals and helps build your network. Remember: be specific. Parting with “who else should I speak to” is tough to answer. Instead, hone in on what exactly you want to understand. “Is there anyone else you would recommend I talk to about transitioning to a career in marketing?”
Be thankful – and express it. Follow up after your conversation within two days to extend your gratitude for the interviewees time and expertise. If you promised to send a resume, apply for a job or reach out to someone else, ensure you take those actions as well. Then, continue to follow up to build a relationship: connect on LinkedIn, send occasion updates on your progress, or share interesting articles.
A successful and insightful informational interview can equip you to make an informed career decision, whether you’re just starting out or looking for a change.