How to Use Informational Interviews to Get Ahead
Learn how to advance your career through conversations.
I’ve received several emails asking if I could talk more about informational interviews. I briefly mentioned them in my book, The Public Speaker’s Guide To Ace Your Interview but it seems I didn’t do a good enough job explaining them. So I decided to write this article.
What Is an Informational Interview?
Traditionally the term “informational interviewing” has been associated with job interviewing. Unfortunately, because of this, I think many people believe asking for an informational interview is just a sneaky way get a job interview. It’s not!!
Informational interviewing is not about asking for a job. It’s also not about asking for possible job referrals. Informational interviewing is about learning something that is not easily available via other resources.
Informational interviewing is about preparing for and developing your career. The idea is to talk with someone to learn more about something, such as their job, the company culture, their career, and maybe their advice. In fact, I started referring to informational interviews as planned coffee conversations (or my case planned “caffeinated career conversations” because I don’t like coffee!)
I prefer to call an informational interview a planned conversation because an interview suggests it’s a one-sided interrogation. By calling it a conversation it suggests a two-sided give and take. Both parties are committing to further develop the relationship and if possible, both parties share information.
Why Have Informational Interviews?
When I was in my twenties, I knew that I wanted to become a professional speaker. So, I had several planned coffee conversations with professional speakers who were members of the local chapter of the National Speaker’s Association. They explained their processes, their success (and mistakes) and some even gave me copies of their contracts and proposals. I held onto my notes and the documents from those conversations for more than a dozen years ;and in fact, one or two of those documents I collected are the basis for what I use today.
At the time, I was very young and didn’t have much to offer in return—except for my enthusiasm for the profession. So, now when I get a call from an enthusiastic young professional asking for similar advice, I return the favor. I think most successful professionals recognize it’s an obligation of leadership to help guide the next generation of leaders and are happy to help when they can.
I recently initiated a caffeinated conversation with a college student because I wanted to be updated on the topic of a class she was completing. She was able to help me learn, and I was able to share some of my insights with her. In fact, our conversation went so well, Whitney, is now doing an summer internship with us. (By the way, you can listen to the recording of that conversation on the facebook page.)
How to Ask for an Informational Interview
Because of the sneakiness issue I mentioned before, some people are hesitant to ask for (and agree to) informational interviews. So it’s very important when you ask to be very clear that you are not asking for a job interview and that you’re not asking them to directly help you get an interview with their contacts. If you’ve properly done your homework (meaning you’ve read all the person’s online profiles and about their company and industry, and have prepared three to five burning questions for them) you’ll be able to be very specific as to what you’d like to learn during your 20-30 minute conversation.
Send an email briefly introducing yourself and specifically state what you’d like to learn during the conversation. If you are close by, you can offer to buy a coffee (or tea); if not, offer to meet via online video chat. If you can get someone in your network to make an e-introduction, it’s even better. Remember, the more specific you can be with your request, the more likely someone will agree to participate.
Who Should You Have Informational Interviews With?
Coffee conversations can be time consuming, so be sure you are picking the “right” people to have your conversations with. Whether you are a young aspiring professional or someone who is well-established, you should always be thinking about what you’d like to learn next and who you’d like to meet to help you grow professionally. Target specific companies and specific people.
Use Informational Interviews to Prepare for Other Interviews
If you want to have an informational interview to prepare for an upcoming interview, talk to people in the same job who work for competitors. Talk to people who used to work at the company. Talk to people who currently work at the company but in a different department.
[[AdMiddle]If you are earlier in the job search process, target two or three organizations that you’d like to work for and see what you can find some common ground by researching online profiles of people that work there. Maybe you’ll find someone who is an alumni of your college, or someone that went to school in your home town.
Use Informational Interviews to Get Ahead in Your Current Job
If you are already working but want to learn more about a particular issue in order to become better at your job, then use linkedIn answers and twitter lists and hashtags to find people who know something about what you want to know; then contact them. I have found people to be very receptive to my requests and generous with their time.
Show your Appreciation
In addition to your preparation, it’s important to show your appreciation. Be respectful of time. Be on time for your informational interview and always start by asking, “ Is this still a good time to talk?” Never go overtime unless you have explicit permission. Oh and manners dictate that the person requesting the conversation should offer to pay for the coffee. Don’t forget to send a quick thank-you and follow up with anything you promised during the conversation. Finally, remember to check-in with the person every now and again just to see how things are going.
So there you have it, some quick and dirty tips to help you advance your career through caffeinated career conversations.
This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
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