How to rock the informational interview

You might not get the job you want immediately, but these kind of interviews are key to building a killer career network.

How to rock the informational interview

An informational interview introduces you to an industry.

When you’re fresh out of college or still paving your career path, you’re probably doing everything in your power to get your first job. But there’s one often-overlooked means of networking that you should be taking advantage of: the informational interview, where your primary goal is to meet workers in your prospective field—people who can offer valuable insight into their job, their company, and the industry as a whole. An informational meeting like this can help you get a handle on your career, as long as you know a few things ahead of time.

Hmm…what is an informational interview? For starters, “It’s not a job interview,” says Carole Martin, a job interview coach and author of Boost Your Interview IQ. “It’s an information gathering session.”

Take these steps to set up informational interviews, ask meaningful questions, and build relationships that can help jumpstart your career.

Target the right people

Many executives are too busy to do informational interviews—and less experienced employees at a company can be a tad green when it comes to offering career advice. So, try to arrange informational interviews with mid-level managers (employees who have five to 15 years of experience).

Ideally, you meet these people through mutual connections. However, if you don’t know someone who can introduce you, find mid-level workers through your alumni database, social media, or professional associations, says Jeff Neil, a New York City career coach and author of Informational Interview Handbook: Essential Strategies To Find The Right Career and A Great New Job.

Be clear about your intentions

When you request an informational meeting by email, briefly explain who you are, how you found the person, and why you want to meet. Transparency is crucial, Neil says. Consider saying something like this: “I want to make it very clear that I’m not going to ask you for a job. I would just love a few minutes of your time to learn about how you’ve succeeded in this industry.” By being direct you’ll take pressure off the person and establish trust, Neil says.

Do some detective work

You need to do your homework on the company and the person that you’re meeting so you have something to talk about other than you. When researching the organization, dig deeper than the company’s website.

“Look at their latest press releases, media coverage, and social media,” says Pamela Skillings, co-founder of New York-based Big Interview, an online job interview training platform.

Also look at the company’s job postings to see what skills they look for in new hires. Even if you’re not going to ask them for a job, it’s good to know what they look for in case your skill set matches up. And you never know—there might be an open job you’d be perfect for!  And of course, you’ll want to know about the person you’re meeting so, check out their social media pages to see their career path and find fodder for questions you’re going to ask.

Speaking of fodder for questions…

Ask meaningful questions

You might only have a few minutes of face time with the person, so you need to make the most of it. Translation: Don’t waste time making idle chitchat. You're there to get answers. “You need to have an agenda,” says Martin. “This is your meeting, and you need to be efficient.”

Also, check to make sure that the person doesn’t mind if you jot down a few things during the conversation, but don’t take copious notes. (You want to stay engaged.)

Start by getting to know the person you’re meeting. “How did you get started in the field?” is always a good one. You could also gain some professional insight with questions like “Where do you see the industry going” or “Which professional associations or trade publications do you recommend?” Try and get insider info about his or her company with “What’s the best thing about working here?” Finally, don’t be afraid to try and get some personal career advice, possibly asking something like: “If you were where I am right now, what next steps would you take?”  

Solidify the relationship

Bring a copy of your resume with you to the informational interview, but only present it if the person asks for it, Neil says. Remember: Your goal is to make a valuable connection—not get a job offer. (Granted, you wouldn’t turn one down!)

Ask your new connection to recommend a couple more people for you to speak with. (“Is there anyone else you know that can give me insight into how I can break into this field?”) Also, leave the door open for future communication. (“Would it be OK if I touch base with you in a few weeks?”)

Remember, “it’s your responsibility to stay in touch,” says Skillings. Whether you use old-fashioned snail mail or email, definitely follow up with a thank-you note the day after your informational interview. If you email, you might even want to share something of value, like an interesting article. You could send an email with a message like: “I read this great story that reminded me of our conversation.” 

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