Information, or informational, interviewing is one of the very best ways to expand your network and learn more about a specific job, industry, profession, or employer. I think Dick Bolles, author of the classic What Color Is Your Parachute book, first made it visible as a part of job search and career management.
What Are Information (or Informational) Interviews and Why Do Them?
The objective of the information interview is for you to meet in person with a manager or individual contributor and ask a series of questions about his/her company, department, and background. At the completion of this interview, you should leave with the names and phone numbers of at least two individuals to whom this person is willing to refer you.
This type of interview gives you a chance to practice your interviewing skills, eyeball-to-eyeball, and to increase the number of your networking contacts.
Information interviews are short, or very short (10 to 30 minutes), discussions you set up with someone who can help you learn more about a topic related to your job search goals.
These are for information gathering only! These are NOT job interviews!
How to Use Information Interviews in Your Job Search
There are a series of steps you need to take to learn how to use an information interview as a job-hunting tool for the 21st century.
Your job hunt should be in a specific career space where you have current experience or in a new career that you are learning about through further education or training. I used the information interview for the first time while employed in a large corporation. Setting up a technical discussion with a fellow employee who was an expert in the field I wanted to transition to was encouraged by the company culture. But, more often, they are used to explore opportunities outside of your current employer’s organization.
Several key ideas can help you be more successful in these interviews:
1. Be prepared.
Know what you want to learn from this person, and have a series of questions ready. More on that below.
2. Listen carefully.
One of the biggest lessons to learn was to really listen to the information shared. Focus on what the person is saying and on understanding what is being said. Don’t be afraid to ask your questions and follow-up questions.
3. Take notes.
You won’t be able to remember everything that is said, so take good notes during the discussion. This is a practiced skill that gets better over time.
4. Don’t run over time.
Watch the clock, and do not take more time than you agreed upon.
5. Follow up promptly.
Send your thank you note very promptly after the interview.
Preparing carefully is the key to success in these interviews as in any other. Look at this as both practice for “real” interviews as well as excellent opportunities to learn more. And, as usual, learning comes with homework, only this homework you do at the beginning, as well as at the end.
Know your goal.
Always have the goal of additional contacts. In addition, your other goals include gaining information and advice from people in this field to help you learn more so you can find a job in the field and succeed in the job when you have it. This process should help you expand your professional network, and increase your knowledge of the field.
Research the companies or new environments where you might like to work. Use LinkedIn, Google, Yelp, and job-hunting sites such as Glassdoor.com and Vault.com to obtain company names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and telephone numbers as well as other more confidential information, such as salary levels.
Try to obtain the name of the hiring manager of the group. Do you know anyone working at the company now who could introduce you?
Setting up the appointments.
Write a generic telephone script.
You will need a script to use for your initial telephone calls. The script should include your full name. Also, mention up front the name of your referral to the hiring manager.
Hello (Mr. or Ms.) [last name], my name is [your name]. I was referred to you by [contact name]. I am in the process of setting up Information Interviews and wonder if I could have just a few minutes of your time in person to learn about your field? Could you talk with me one day next week for about 15 minutes? Could we possibly meet at your office or at a nearby Starbucks or Panera? What is the best time of day for you? Could I possibly buy you a cup of coffee? Meet where? At your office? At a Starbucks? Would a 15-minute phone call work instead?
Perhaps add something about it being as flexible as possible – meeting at their convenience and location. If it’s at Starbucks (or whatever), you are the one buying the coffee, too.
You are taking the time of a busy person on the other end of the telephone. Be respectful. Say please and thank you. It also helps to smile during the telephone conversation. People can hear a smile in your voice.
Practice saying the telephone script out loud, and keep the time for the call under 5 minutes. You need to sound confident and professional.
To help you be more relaxed, take three or four deep breaths before the call. Breathe in through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. If you are really nervous, close your eyes and try to visualize a lovely pond in a shaded woods with lily pads and dragon flies.
Have a back-up voice mail message script ready.
Be prepared to leave a voice message for the manager. Leave a brief, conversational message that is not long and wordy. Give your name, referral name, and your telephone number. If you use only a cell phone, make sure your message is professional and sedate, unless you are a rock and roll musician.
Experiencing the Information Interview
Remember that you are having a conversation with this person to obtain more information about job hunting in your mutual field. You are not asking for a specific job. You do not even plan to give him/her your resume. If he or she asks for a copy of your resume, you can give him/her one anyway, or offer to email it if you didn’t bring one with you.
The day you have the information interview, make sure you wear your regular interview outfit.
Prepare yourself as if this is an actual job interview. But it is not!
Keep your goals in mind: information, advice, and referrals. Draft a series of brief questions that you may want to ask during the interview. Based on your own research and experience, your questions could include these topics and much more:
- How do the different jobs in this field (what ever it is) relate to each other?
- What job is a good entry point for this field?
- How is someone successful in this field? What are the characteristics? Which career paths?
- What is a typical career path (if there is one)? Who does what? Who is senior to whom?
- What causes someone to fail in this field?
- What mistakes are commonly made by someone new in this field (or your target job title)?
- Which are the best-regarded employers (and, also, least well-regarded)?
- How do the preferred employers hire, and do they have effective Employee Referral Programs?
- Which professional organizations are the best (most up to date and best for networking)?
- Are any conferences must-attend events for members of this field?
Any degrees, certifications, training that are must-haves?
Try not to ask basic questions that you could have answered outside of the interview using Google.
Ask permission to take notes.
Tell the manager you will be taking notes, and hope that it does not bother him. Then, ask his or her advice, and take your notes.
Watch the clock, and begin your wrap-up before your time is up.
When you are wrapping up the discussion:
- Referral request.
Ask the person if they can give you the names of one or two people for you to talk to in the near future.
Shake the interviewer’s hand firmly, smile, and say “Thank You!”
After the interview…
- The thank you.
It is always good form to send a thank you note to any interviewer. You can choose either hard copy mail or email. Keep the note brief and on topic. Offer your assistance on anything that may be useful to them – perhaps a follow-up on something shared during the interview.
- Follow-up lead request.
If the interviewer worked at a company that you really liked, wait about two weeks and check in with the interviewer to see if he/she has any industry leads. You can also refer your friends to this company for possible jobs in other departments.
Keep an open mind, but do not count on being hired here. The original information interview was a stepping stone for you to meet more people and to practice patience and experience the amazing possibilities that networking can bring.
More About Informational Interviews
About the author…
Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 2011, Susan has been editor and publisher of WorkCoachCafe. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan also edits and publishes Job-Hunt.org and is a columnist on HuffingtonPost and LinkedIn. Follow Susan on Twitter (@jobhuntorg) and on Google+.