How to Ace an Informational Interview Eight best practices to help you make the most out of this important professional tool
How to Ace an Informational Interview Eight best practices to help you make the most out of this important professional tool

Most job seekers and career changers know they can benefit from informational interviews. But many people don’t have the foggiest idea how to ask for such a meeting, let alone make a good impression once there.

Fortunately, it’s not hard to crack the code of this professional development tool — once you know whom to ask. As someone who’s written about career development for years, I’ve had my fair share of informational interview requests and have learned what works and what doesn’t. I’ve culled advice from my own experience and the experience of seasoned managers and recruiters to help you understand the ins and outs of informational interviews.

Here are eight best practices that can help you make the most of this important career-building tool.  

1. solicit information, not a job

There are many reasons to ask for an informational interview. You might want to learn about a new career path. You might be curious about where you’d fit in with a company you’ve had your eye on. You might be pursuing a specific job listing and have questions about the company’s culture. You might even be curious about other opportunities with your own employer.

Many questions can yield this type of information. “Can you get me a job?” is not one of them. Demanding employment is one of the quickest ways to alienate someone. You may be eager for work, but a subtler touch is essential and will benefit you more in the long run.

2. tap the right contacts 

The questions you have will dictate whom you seek to answer them. If you’re chasing a new career, speak with people whose professional trajectory you admire.

To infiltrate your dream company, ask one of their recruiters or hiring managers what they look for in candidates, where someone with your experience would fit in the organization and what the corresponding job titles are.

Take advantage of how simple LinkedIn and other social media make finding the right person to talk to. No matter what your MO, always start with your close personal and professional network and branch out from there. If you’re wondering whether to pursue an opening with a specific employer, ask an acquaintance who works there for the inside scoop on salaries, perks, management, work-life balance and their own satisfaction with the company.

Tapping peers, former colleagues and friends of friends for career advice is the low-hanging fruit of informational interviews. Chances are they’ll be happy to talk to you and the conversation will be more informal (think emails, texts and direct messages). If you’re daunted by the prospect of informational interviewing, this is an easy way to get some practice.

3. get a referral 

Don’t be afraid to contact someone much higher on the professional ladder than you. Rather than emailing cold, ask a mutual acquaintance for an introduction.

“Being referred by someone who knows that person is the absolute best way,” said Jennifer O’Brien, managing director at Pyramide Productions, a Redmond-based video production company serving the enterprise technology industry.

Having someone vouch for you assures busy professionals that you’re worthy of their time and not just another phishing scammer or salesperson clogging their inbox, O’Brien explained.

That said, cold-contacting a recruiter at a staffing agency is perfectly acceptable. After all, talking with interested candidates is their job.

“I will have an initial online conversation with almost anybody,” said Kristen Fife, a senior technical recruiter in the greater Seattle area who constantly receives email, LinkedIn and Facebook messages from interested candidates. “If a LinkedIn request is relevant to HR and recruiting, I will almost always accept it.”

4. master the ask 

Keep requests for informational interviews short and sweet. Be clear about what you want: tell the person what you’d like to discuss and why you think they’re uniquely positioned to answer your questions. If you went to the same alma mater or once worked at the same company, mention the shared connection.

“Personalizing the request is something that a lot of people miss,” Fife said. “They’ll ask for an informational interview but don’t say, ‘This is why I wanted to talk to you specifically.’”

Make it easy for the person you’re contacting to say yes. Include your resume and work samples (if applicable), so they can see who you are and what you’ve done. Let your contact dictate when and where to meet and for how long. They may want you to come to their office, or they may want to chat by phone or video. Go with whatever they suggest, as they’re the ones donating their time. If they suggest meeting for coffee, be sure to treat them. 

Mastering the informational interview isn’t rocket science. All it takes is a bit of preparation, professional courtesy and common sense.

Michelle Goodman

5. come prepared to dazzle

Take the time to craft thoughtful questions. Ask hiring managers about a role’s day-to-day responsibilities, the other personnel you’d interact with, how they’d measure your success in the role, the management style they favor and any other details your web research doesn’t yield. When talking with someone in a role you aspire to, ask how the job differs from their initial expectations and what they’d change about it if they could.

It’s natural to feel nervous or intimidated heading into these meetings, but don’t let on. Airing your insecurities in informational interviews is a mistake, O’Brien said. Passion, determination and a strong belief in yourself will serve you best.

“Nobody wants to hire somebody who’s trying to be a copywriter,” O’Brien said. “They want to hire a copywriter.”

6. seek next steps

Aim to leave each informational interview with a list of action items: a tool to learn or skill to acquire, a class to consider taking, another industry rock star to contact, revisions to make in your resume or portfolio, an industry website or podcast to check out.

Don’t expect the people you meet with to offer these details. Come prepared with open-ended questions: What’s missing from my resume for me to reach this role? What’s the best way for me to attain those skills? Who else in the field do you think I’d benefit from speaking to? Can you introduce me to them? What industry organizations have your found most valuable? What additional resources would you recommend I check out to learn more?

7. nail the follow-up

After the meeting, thank the person for generously giving you their time. Do this quickly, within a day or two. A personalized email works well, though a handwritten card never fails to impress. Skip the texts and DMs. Unless the person is a friend or close colleague, they’re a bit too rushed and informal.

Include whatever materials you promised to send: an article you wrote, the video of a presentation you gave, a recipe or vacation spot you mentioned. If you haven’t yet done so, connect with them on LinkedIn.

If, after your in-person conversation, you’re still interested in the person’s industry, company or department, say so. Remind them why you’d be a good fit. Now’s your chance to gently prod them for job leads, Fife said.

Something like, “If you hear of any opportunities you’d be willing to send my way, I’d welcome that,” should do the trick.  

8. stay in touch 

Update these new contacts on your career developments throughout the year (new client, new job, new title). Feel free to briefly mention any shared personal interests you discussed with them (your garden’s latest blooms, your rugby team’s latest wins).

If you’re still looking for work, check in once a quarter to say so. Hiring managers and recruiters with positions to fill will welcome the occasional update. If you’re a fit for one of their openings, you’ve just made their life easier.

Resist the urge to check in weekly or otherwise pester your contacts. That’s a surefire way to get blacklisted. When in doubt, treat professional contacts as you’d want to be treated. The idea is to come across as friendly, collegial, helpful and respectful of their time, not self-absorbed, entitled and lacking in social graces.

Mastering the informational interview isn’t rocket science. All it takes is a bit of preparation, professional courtesy and common sense. At worst, you’ll have a pleasant yet fleeting conversation with a member of your chosen industry. At best, that conversation can lead to your next job.

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Author Michelle Goodman

Michelle Goodman

Guest writer Michelle Goodman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Seattle. Her books — The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life — offer an irreverent twist on the traditional career guide. She specializes in writing about work, entrepreneurship and career change.

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