The Art of the Informational Interview

Last week I gave a seminar on networking.  In this down economy I have been working with industry groups, chambers of commerce and alumni organizations to offer members resources for their job searches.  After we had discussed resumes, professional organizations, networking and on-line personas, I asked one final question.  The baffling question I posed was "How many of you are conducting at least one informational interview a week?"

The reaction to my question was blank stares.

Now, this was not a group of new college graduates.  Most of the participants had been working for 5 to 15 years or more.  After a brief silence, one brave man in the back of the room raised his hand to ask "What exactly is an informational interview?"  The plethora of nodding heads throughout the room brought to light how few people understand one of the most effective and most useful weapons in their job hunting arsenal.

Inquiring Minds ~ Informational interviews are your most direct research tool.  Whether you have just graduated, are working while weighing different career paths, or actively job seeking, the informational interview is your way to gather information from those currently employed in the position you are considering.  This is your chance to learn the "real deal" about a particular industry, organization or position.

You Lead ~ Any interview is like ballroom dancing.  In traditional job interviews, the person in the organization takes the lead and the job seeking candidate follows.  For informational interviews, the person requesting the interview, typically the job seeker, leads the conversation.

Become a Reporter ~ As the informational interview requestor, you are responsible for conducting the interview, even when you are in someone else's office.  This means a bit of introductory small talk to warm up your subject.  Share a brief background about yourself as a basis of understanding, and then delve into the questioning.  Imagine yourself as a reporter gathering facts and information about this individual and his/her professional life.

Have a Goal ~ Understand why speaking with this person is important to your goals.  This means you should have a goal and be able to articulate what you specifically hope to learn from this particular individual.

Targeted and Thoughtful ~ Your questions should be tailored for each informational interview.  Do not ask questions which can easily be answered via an internet search.  Educate yourself about this individual and his/her career.  But do not share information you have gleaned that is so personal you come across as a stalker.  Show you are curious without trying to prove your intellectual superiority.

Project Professionalism ~ Be sure to confirm the meeting a day or two prior.  Ask for and give the best methods of communication for day-of should you need to reach each other.  Arrive 10 minutes prior to the appointed time.  If you are too early, take a walk around the block.  When greeted, look the person in the eye and offer a firm handshake.

Dress for Success ~ While not a traditional job interview, you should still dress appropriately for this interaction.  Through your attire, you should show that you want to look professional.  You are demonstrating respect to your subject and that you value the time s/he is spending with you.

Always Accessorize ~ Be sure you arrive with a nice portfolio to take notes, a pen to write with and clean copies of your résumé.  Ask if you may take notes and offer a copy of your résumé.  If the résumé is declined, do not worry, just move right into your questions.

Watch Your Watch ~ You should wear a watch.  Since you are running the interview it is your responsibility to stay within your timeframe.  Confirm the timing at the beginning and be sure to leave a few minutes at the end should the person wish to ask you some questions.

No Nos ~ Do not ask the informational interviewee for a job.  S/he already knows you are looking.  If there is an available position open, s/he will tell you.  Also, if you asked your subject out for coffee or lunch, then you are the host and need to pay.  If you asked for an informational interview and s/he suggested a meal, then you are the guest.

Secondary Consequences ~ Informational interviews can lead to more networking.  It is perfectly acceptable to ask if there is anyone else you should speak with to help broaden your horizons.  Of course, if your informational interviewee does not jump to offer other contacts, do not push.

Gracious and Grateful ~ You will always want to leave with a positive impression.  The best way to do this is to properly thank your informational interviewee for his/her time.  Of course, you will verbally thank him/her as you close out the interview.  Additionally, you should send a handwritten note of appreciation.

Informational interviews are an essential professional tool.  The informational interview hones your industry knowledge and interview skills, and allows for you to receive feedback about your background in a low stress environment.  You will be building your professional network and helping to keep busy as you transition to your next role.  In job seeking, activity breeds activity.  Even better, informational interviews can open pathways to positions you might never have considered.