How to Ace an Informational Interview
One of the best ways to move a stagnant job search forward is to request an informational interview. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, prepare to have your mind blown.
It’s like a job interview, minus the job, and backwards. You interview a person in your field (at a company you might like) from a purely informational perspective. No job attached, no pressure, just a fantastic opportunity to learn and cultivate your professional network – and scope each other out.
But here’s the trick. If you’re very prepared and a little bit lucky, it might lead to a job.
Ask for the Interview.
We’ve written before about asking for help. The same advice applies here. A genuine, thoughtful request will take you far, especially if you’re connected somehow to the person you’d like to interview.
Be sure to share your perspective – what are you hoping to get out of the interview? Are you making a choice about grad school? Are you considering a career shift? Be very clear and upfront about why you’re hoping to connect with your interviewee.
And no, don’t say you’re hoping to get a job from them. That’s in bad taste. Jacob Lehman advises MBA students at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business to be very careful about how to word requests:
“I typically recommend that candidates reach out asking for “advice on pursuing a career in this field”, “guidance” or “insight on the industry.” It gives the interviewee the opportunity to say “yes” even if their organization isn’t hiring, and they may still be willing to refer a candidate to someone else.”
Also be sure to keep things time-constrained – are you looking for a 15-minute chat? A 30-minute phone call? Make it as simple as possible for your interviewee to understand your intention. It’s also good form to thank them in advance.
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
There is no worse misstep than coming to an informational interview unprepared. The person who has agreed to chat with you won’t have an agenda prepared – they’re fitting you into middle of their workday. It’s up to you to make this count.
Here are the basics you should have covered:
Your interviewee’s background. Check out their online profiles, their social media, and have a good working understanding of their contributions to the field. If they have a website and a blog, read them. You don’t want to ask anything so general as “Tell me about yourself!” – that’s a huge waste of time if they’ve got an online presence.
Be familiar with the company. Read their website (Google is your friend). You should know about any cutting-edge work they’re doing, their history, and as much about their business structure as you can. Don’t worry about having to show off your knowledge in the interview, just be prepared.
Have questions ready. Depending on how much time you’ve got for the interview, prepare at least 5-10 questions. Feel free to spin off in different directions, but having questions written down in front of you will prevent the conversation from dying off.
Write a short focus statement. This can help your interviewee understand what you’re trying to get out of your time together. You might refer back to your ask email – if you’re thinking about switching fields, you might say something like, “Because I’m considering going to grad school in this field, I wanted to get an idea of the work/life balance in the public vs. private sector.”
Including this statement as a preface to the interview can help keep the conversation on track. Jacob adds, “Once you’ve done this, stick to it. If you find out that the work/life balance at your interviewee’s organization is non-existent, you might as well ask them if they’d be willing to introduce you to contacts at other organizations with a different balance.”
An important thing to remember – be genuinely curious. Ask questions that you really want to know the answer to (the more open-ended the better). Your interviewee will be able to tell if you’re simply sniffing around for a job, so be real. This shouldn’t feel like a means to an end.
“There’s a difference between wanting to get a job and wanting to do the work. I feel vastly better (and am more likely to help) a candidate who says “here’s the kind of work I want to do and why – can you tell me more about your organization?” than one who says “I really want to work for your company.”
If you want to open up your conversation to more parts of the organization, a perfectly appropriate question to ask is, “Is there anybody else here who might be good to talk to, based on what we discussed today?”
Offer to help.
At the close of the interview, you should be prepared to offer your help in a concrete way. Do this as part of thanking your interviewee, without any expectation of an immediate return. Whether it’s advice on a particular subject or a connection you could make for them, you should always be prepared with a sincere offer of some kind (after all, they’ve just done you a solid!)
This serves as a no-pressure opening for your interviewee to bring up any contracting opportunities or open positions. But remember – this is a bonus. If job opportunities don’t come up, you can still walk away having made a wonderful connection.
How can you get started? A quick search for your dream job on BrightCrowd will turn up people who are happy to chat with you, because that’s what BrightCrowd is all about!