Informational Interviewing: The Hidden Secret of Effective Job Searching

Career Discovery, Confidence, Interviewing
11/20/19 - Shari Santoriello
informational interview

Thinking about a career transition, but not sure if you’re interested in an industry? Want to try a new job, but don’t know much about it? How about going back to school; is this the right move for you? Learn how to prepare for and use the informational interview as a tool to reach your next career goal.

The easiest way to get answers is to ask questions. And getting the answers to your career questions is the foundation of the informational  interview.

Sounds simple, yes? But often we feel uncomfortable and unsure of how to reach out and ask those types of questions. We feel that no one will be willing to give of their time and share their insights with us.

This is where the informational interview comes in.

What is an informational interview?

An informational interview is an opportunity to speak informally with a professional who can give you some insight into a new industry, field of study, type of job or even a different company from where you are now. 

To be clear, an informational interview is not an opportunity to ask for a job.  It is more like a media interview in that you are the interviewer, not the interviewee. You choose the questions, because you are the one who wants to know the “stuff” (no matter what the stuff is). Let me repeat…you are not there to ask for a job.

Why not?

I’m sure by now you are now wondering, “If I’m not asking for a job, what’s the point”? or maybe now you’re saying, “Isn’t this information available to me online, especially on a specific company website?” 

The point is while you can get some of this foundational type of information from a website, there are critical differences that the informational interview provides you:

  • Opportunities for an informal, dynamic inside view that is unmatched by other sources
    • This can often mean having a frank discussion about what may be considered “taboo” topics for a job interview – salary expectations, job growth, specific field barriers
    • A true “day in the life” perspective
  • Making valuable connections; building relationships
  • Interviewing without the stress. Since you are asking the questions, often stress levels will decrease.

Ok, so how do I do this?

“Being flooded with information doesn’t mean we have the right information or that we’re in touch with the right people.” Bill Gates

Scoring the right informational interview requires time and effort.

You need to determine what you want to know. Make a list outlining your priorities of what information you want to gather. Don’t worry about crafting questions just yet.

Start researching. What companies/job titles/career path/field of studies match with your list of what you want to know?

Check your current network, and your expanded network.

Do you know anyone who can connect you to a person at the right company, with the right job title, working in the career, teaching in the field of study? Or do you know anyone who knows someone? Besides LinkedIn, widen your search. Think about your friends and their friends, your parents’ friends, your children’s friends’ parents, your alumni association, other social medias. Are you in school? How about a teacher? Any person that you know or know of can be a connection for you.

If yes, reach out in a friendly, professional way and ask for an introduction to the right contact.

It’s important to be clear and concise in your ask. If this is a contact of a contact be sure to introduce yourself, otherwise you can get right to why you are asking for an introduction, note that you will respect the person’s time,  ask how they would like to handle the introduction (give you contact information, or reach out on your behalf) and always state that you would appreciate any effort on your behalf. (Manners are still important!)

When you make your initial outreach to the expert, make sure you set very explicit goals for why you would like to speak with them, including how much time you think you will need. (Keep in mind an informational interview should be no more than 15 to 30 minutes.) Setting clear goals helps you stay on track to get the information you need and lets the expert know you are serious, organized and will be respectful of their time.

Informational interviews can take on several different forms.

Your first choice should be some type of face-to-face interaction, in-person is best, but a video call is a close second. If that is not a possibility, then a voice phone call will also work. If you can’t secure any of those, you can certainly have an email exchange. This isn’t ideal but is still more positive than having no interview.

I got the right person, now what?

Now you need to be sure you are asking the right questions. Go back to the original list with your priorities on them, this is your roadmap to identifying the right questions.

What do you want to know? Formulate questions that give the expert the opportunity to expand the answer and fill in the important details from their own experience and perspective. Questions that can be answered with a yes or no aren’t usually going to work to your benefit. (These are known as closed ended questions, because they close the conversation.) You want to stick with open-ended questions; questions that can be answered with a narrative.

Some examples of informational interviewing questions are:

  • What does a typical day look like for you?
  • Explain some some challenges you face in this job?
  • What do you like most about your job? Why?
  • What do you like least about your job? Why?
  • What was your educational or professional path to get to where you are now?
  • Describe the best (or worst) piece of career advice you’ve ever received?
  • What is something you would want your younger self to know about where you are now?

These questions can be adjusted to a company, career path or new field of study.

Start with a longer list of questions and whittle it down until you have three to five key questions that can give you the most information about what you want to know. You want to maximize your time with your expert while being respectful of their time. This also shows your organizational skills, preparedness and sincerity level. And while this is not a job interview, hey, you never know? 

How do I do this successfully?

Like any other type of interview, you’ll need to prepare. It is important for the interviewee to feel that you are genuine. The conversation should flow and feel like an informal interchange and not like an interrogation.

Tips for informational interviewing success:

Before the interview:

  • Be sure to do your research on who you will be speaking to, you don’t want to waste their time by asking, “so, what do you do?”
  • Confirm your meeting time and method of meeting.
  • Have your three-five most important questions ready. Practice speaking them out loud so that you can be sure that you won’t be stumbling over your words.
  • Bring a clean pad or notebook and have a pen at the ready. If you use a laptop, ask permission first.
  • Dress in appropriate business attire. If you don’t know what that is, feel free to ask. (Bonus tip: check out your outfit the day before so you have no surprises when you go to get dressed!)

During the interview:

  • Arrive 15 minutes early. (if you are meeting in person.)
  • Respect your appointment time. If you’re scheduled for 15 minutes, then only use 15 minutes.
  • Reiterate concisely what your goals are for the interview.
  • Be an active listener. Remember you are there to get information.
  • Ask if you can keep in touch. (an e-mail touch base, a connection on LinkedIn, or other social media)

After the interview:

  • Always send a thank you note. (Bonus tip: refer to something you spoke about and indicate how you found it helpful.)
  • Organize and analyze your notes; did you accomplish what you set out to do?  Does this align with your goals? Did it help you make decisions?

While you are not paying for their time, goodwill can go a long way! Here are a few suggestions to go the extra mile:

  • Bring coffee, a cold drink, maybe even a cookie. (if you are meeting in person.)
  • Offer or identify anything you can do for this person or their company. (Is there a volunteer opportunity to show your appreciation of their time?) Then, do it!
  • Find something that you have a shared interest and refer to it when you speak, or follow-up with the link to the article or product you mentioned

So, now can I ask for the job?

After the informational interview and you have analyzed your notes, you can certainly ask for job guidance and support when the time is right.  The time is right after you have built a casual relationship and are feeling comfortable with what you have learned. Sometimes you won’t have to ask, your new contact will invite you to apply for a job, or give them a resume they can pass on. If this doesn’t happen, you will have to reach out and ask. Some effective ways to ask are:

  • I’m interested in applying for the XYZ role at your company. Do you know anything about it, or is there anyone else you think I should connect with to learn more about it?
  • Do you happen to be connected to the hiring manager? I would greatly appreciate an introduction if you feel comfortable.
  • I saw that you’re company has an opening for XYZ role, do you feel that may be a good fit for me? If so, do you feel comfortable referring me? I’d be appreciative for the opportunity.

Just a reminder, manners are important!

Hooray! You did it!

Building and maintaining these strong networking relationships will be beneficial to you every step of the way in your professional journey. 

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