What if you lost your job today and needed a new job in a week? Could you do it?
What if you just wanted some advice for a tough career decision? Is there someone you could ask?
Or what if you wanted to make a big career change, like switching industries? Is there anyone you could call for help?
The secret to solving all of these challenges is the same: informational interviews.
Informational interviews: What they are and how they work
You’ve likely heard employment buzzwords like networking or mentoring being thrown around, but have you ever heard of the term informational interview? Informational interviews can be the difference between a thriving career and a career stalemate, but not everyone is familiar with how these types of interviews work.
At a high-level, here’s how an informational interview works:
- You find someone doing the job you’re interested in
- Invite them out to coffee or ask them to chat over the phone
- Ask key questions about the job and gather insider information
- Then, use what you learned to make an informed decision about your career
Simple, right? It is — as long as you understand the rules:
- It’s not about a job. You’re not actively trying to land a new position with an informational interview.
- You’re there to learn. The purpose of this type of interview is to learn about what the other person does, how they do it, and what they like or dislike about their job.
- You listen and they talk. The other person does the talking, but you steer the conversation with insightful questions that matter to both of you.
That said, informational interviews can most certainly lead to more job opportunities in the future, but only if you conduct them in the right way by asking the right questions to the right people.
Let us show you how to master this powerful job search tool.
How to ask for an informational interview (and who to ask!)
One of the biggest hurdles to getting an informational interview is knowing how to ask for one and who to ask. An informational interview is only useful if you target someone whose role you could see yourself in, whose field you may be interested in, or whose team you may want to be hired onto in the future.
Otherwise, it’s just going to end up being coffee and a Q&A with no real purpose. While that’s nice, it’s not exactly the goal of the exercise.
Before you send out any invites, though, be sure you know who exactly you need to interview. Here are a few tips to help narrow it down:
- Know the right type of person to ask. This could be people who are already in your network of contacts in a particular field, company, or job that interests you. Or, it could be someone you cold call (or cold email, rather) with the request.
- Don’t have someone in mind? Look through your networking contacts on sites like LinkedIn or any other social media outlet. These sites can be gold mines when it comes to building work contacts. You may even have a connection with someone in your ideal role or field already.
- Can’t find the right person in your connections? Don’t let that stop you. A connection in a similar field may be able to help identify the right person to contact for a coffee chat email. It doesn’t hurt to reach out.
- Or, just search and identify a few people you may want to ask for an exploratory interview. You can use a social networking platform or a simple Google search to do this. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to take a quick call or coffee break to chat about their jobs with you.
Once you’ve identified the person or persons you want to ask, all you have to do is reach out to the person you want to meet with by sending a friendly but concise email asking for a meeting.
You’re free to word these requests as you see fit, but the wording of the email could be as simple as:
“Hi, Brad! My name is Ann, and Kelly Smith suggested I speak with you because I am interested in learning more about your field or role. If you’re open to it, I would love to get some advice from you on this role or field. Would you have time in the next two weeks to meet for coffee so that I can learn more about your company and the role or field?”
If you aren’t sure what to say, there are even word-for-word email scripts that can help. The hard work is basically done for you.
You may strike out a few times, and that’s OK. Just keep reaching out to the right people, and eventually, you’ll find success.
How to ask the right informational interview questions
Once you’ve landed a “yes” for an informational interview, you need to take time to prepare for the interview, which starts with compiling a list of the right questions to ask. This step is crucial if you want to learn more about a role or company.
It’s important to start the process of an informational interview with just one goal in mind: learning more about what the other person does and how they feel about it. These tips can help you ask the right types of questions:
- Leave out any questions that you could learn the answers to by a quick Google search. The internet is a well of information on things like company benefits, salary information, career trajectories, and other hard and fast facts, so leave those out of the equation.
- Ask the types of questions that require a personal answer. Inquire the person about the career path was that they took to get to their current position, or ask about what special certifications or education they pursued that may have set them apart.
- Make sure your questions are open-ended. Try not to ask yes or no questions, even on follow-ups. Doing so will quickly put a damper on the conversation.
- Tailor your questions to focus on their experiences in the industry or role. The goal is to get them to tell you about themselves and their path to the role that you’re eying.
These types of open-ended, well-phrased questions make the person you’re interviewing feel comfortable with you. They’re also a sign that you have respect for the other person’s experience and expertise, which is important if you want to also build a networking relationship.
Here are a few examples you can use to help you craft your own questions:
- Good question: “I noticed on your LinkedIn that your job in this industry focuses around <insert a special niche or project>. That seems like a unique opportunity to be given in this field. How did you find an opening to pursue <the special project or niche>? It sounds like something I’d also like to pursue in the future.”
- Not-so-good question: “You work in a <insert special niche or field at company> that I’d like to be in. Can you help me get a job at your company?”
- Good question: “What steps did you take to work up to your current earning potential? Do you have any tips for those of us who are just starting out in the field?”
- Not-so-good question: “How much money do you make?”
- Good question: “What are some of the more difficult challenges or hurdles you face in this role?”
- Not-so-good question: “What do you hate about this job?”
Notice the subtle differences? The good questions are open-ended and inquisitive. The not-so-good questions are pointed, closed questions that are going to make the person you’re interviewing very uncomfortable — and put your interview at risk of going downhill.
The big mistakes to avoid during informational interviews
Knowing who to ask for help — and what to ask — are just two small pieces of the informational interview puzzle. There is an art to pulling off a successful informational interview, and it involves a lot more don’ts than do’s.
If you want to successfully navigate the art of informational interviews, you should make every effort to avoid the big (and surprisingly common) mistakes. These include:
1. Arriving late — or way too early
If you’re pursuing work- or career-related tips from your interviewee, chances are that they’re a busy professional with lots on their plate. What that means is that you should make every effort to avoid taking the other person’s time for granted.
Don’t be late for your meeting — that’s an obvious one — but avoid being early, too, especially if you’re meeting at their place of employment. Don’t arrive more than five minutes early or you could put them in a precarious position (or embarrass yourself by barging in on a meeting you weren’t invited to).
2. Asking for a job
While you may want a job from this person. In fact, what they do may even be your dream job, but you need to avoid asking for a job opportunity at all costs. If you crafted your initial email the right way, you’ve already made it clear that you aren’t asking for anything other than the person’s time and insight. So, don’t flip the script on them when you meet in person.
If you conduct yourself professionally and make a good impression, a job offer may organically grow from your interactions. But you are not there for a job interview, so don’t expect a job to grow out of your interactions. If it does? Great. If it doesn’t, you’ve still gained a lot of value from their time and insight.
3. Dominating the conversation
If you’re nervous, or if there are awkward pauses, you may feel tempted to try and fill the silence with nonstop chatter. Or, you may feel the need to offer commentary after every question is answered. Don’t do that. Ask and actively listen instead.
Remember that the goal of this informational interview is to learn what you can from another professional who works in a job or at a company you’d like to pursue. You should be spending about 90% of your time during this interview on the listening end — not the talking end. If you’re finding yourself talking more than listening, you’re headed down the wrong path.
4. Asking for introductions
You may have targeted your interviewee because they have great connections in the industry you want to be in. They may know the CEO of a certain company or have a friend or acquaintance who works in recruiting for a major firm. That’s all fine and good, but don’t allude to the fact that you’re looking for introductions to these key people.
Keep the talk about the interviewee — not about who they know. And whatever you do, avoid asking for introductions to anyone on their connections list, in their current company, at their former company, or in their inner circle. You asked to meet with them to discuss their experience and role — not to meet another party who may benefit you more.
5. Skipping the thank you
One of the biggest mistakes people make is skipping the formal thank you after the informational interview. Remember that the person who met with you took time out of their busy schedule to try and help you. A sacrifice like that requires proper thanks.
Send a card, an email, or some other form of written communication to thank them for the time they spent on you. Show them that you’re grateful for their help and advice, and do so quickly after you meet. This showcases your professionalism, and leaves them with the best impression of you possible — which can come in handy should future opportunities arise that you may be a fit for.
One final informational interview tip
While it’s important to have the right questions in mind and avoid the big mistakes when conducting an informational interview, you should also try not to overthink it. The goal of this process is for you to learn and grow while networking — not conduct every word, mannerism, and interaction by the book. That’s way too much pressure for one person to handle.
But if you relax, engage, and most importantly, listen, you’re much more likely to come out of the process with the information that you need and a new networking contact on your side. If you’re too busy focusing on what to ask next or how to phrase the questions the right way, though, you’ll run the risk of missing vital information or advice — and that’s the opposite of what you want to achieve.