One of the most effective ways to learn about a company or industry is to conduct an informational interview.
In my own life, I’ve seen informational interviews plant the seeds to many career opportunities down the road. For example, an informational interview with a journalist in Honolulu led to an introduction that helped me land a gig as a news anchor at a local radio station. An informational interview with a fellow alumnus led to an introduction to the president of the start-up consulting firm in Washington, DC where I eventually worked. And an informational interview with a former employee at a target company in London helped get my CV in front of the hiring manager who brought me in to interview for a role I eventually accepted.
I’m convinced that being effective at securing informational interviews is a useful skill for any professional who wants to explore new career opportunities. Here are some useful principles and tips to help you land informational interviews along with some advice from some networking experts.
WHAT IS AN INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW?
First of all, let’s define exactly what an information interview is. Broadly speaking, an informational interview is a structured conversation with someone who may be able to share insights or guidance on an industry, company, function, or geography that interests you. When conducted effectively, informational interviews can help you broaden your network, establish a useful connection, or even uncover a job opportunity.
I often remind career changers that unconventional job candidates don’t often fare well using conventional job search tactics. Conventional hiring methods (job boards, recruiters, etc) tend to favor conventional candidates. Therefore, I encourage non-traditional candidates to use nontraditional methods of job-hunting to uncover opportunities. Informational interviews can be a low-pressure way of at least starting a conversation with someone who might be in a company or organization you’re targeting. Other benefits of informational interviewing include:
- Broadening and strengthening your network
- Gaining insights into an industry, sector, or function
- Uncovering less obvious professional opportunities
Non-traditional candidates should embrace non-traditional methods of job-hunting to uncover opportunities.
WHERE DO YOU FIND PEOPLE FOR INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS?
People often struggle with figuring out where to find people they can connect with. Start by exploring the circles to which you already belong. “I advise job seekers to start with people they know,” states Jessica Hernandez, President/CEO of Great Resumes. “Reach out to friends, classmates, colleagues, and friends of friends first. LinkedIn is also a wonderful tool for finding experts in your field.”
Finding people’s emails has also gotten much easier these days. Troops Founder Scott Britton offers some very useful tips on how to find email addresses. Also, don’t forget you can always ask for an information interview as a follow-up to meeting someone for the first time at an event or conference.
HOW SHOULD I PREPARE MY OWN SOCIAL MEDIA PROFILES?
Before you reach out, make sure you’re happy with how your own personal brand is conveyed across social media, especially LinkedIn. You can bet that the person you’re reaching out to will want to know about you before agreeing to meet, so you should expect they’ll be Googling you to learn more about who you are. Simone Dominique, Founder of Wunderspot, frequently receives informational interview requests via LinkedIn. She states the only people she agrees to meet only those who have a “LinkedIn profile fully filled out that tells a clear story of who you are.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU SAY IN YOUR INITIAL OUTREACH?
The more personal you can make your initial outreach, the better. Avoid the cut & paste approach of blasting out the same exact email to everyone you contact. You really need to customize it and make it clear you’ve actually done your research so you can communicate a very specific reason for contacting this specific individual. Hernandez recommends you “state why you are reaching out and what you admire about what they do.” She also suggests alluding to their successes, articles, or other specific reason WHY you reached out to them specifically.
Also, keep in mind this is a give and take. You’re taking up someone’s time, so it never hurts to offer something in return. According to Dominique, instead of saying ‘Let me know if there’s anything that I can do to help you,’ which puts all the burden on the recipient, say something like “I would love to meet to see how we can help each other.” She says this comes across as being more of a collaborative brainstorm, and increases the likelihood of getting a response.
HOW AND WHERE SHOULD YOU SUGGEST MEETING?
My general rule of thumb is to make it as easy as possible for the other person to say yes. Minimize the friction for them. That means offering to meet at a time and location convenient for them, not necessarily for you. Meet them at or near their office for a 20 minute conversation because most people can afford to spare 20 minutes. I’ve found 30 minute meetings start to border on feeling too long, and perhaps begin to spill into the realm of a full-blown meeting since most work meetings tend to happen in 30 minute chunks.
In terms of coffee vs. lunch vs. a food-free meeting, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Personally, I suggest short 20 minute meetings because they’re low burden and time efficient. However, other experts suggest longer meetings. “The worst approach is ‘I’d like to grab coffee sometime to pick your brain,’” says Carolyn Thompson, Managing Principal of the Merito Group talent acquisition firm. “Mealtime meetings are better than coffee meetings. An offer of breakfast, lunch or dinner is easier to get someone to accept – people have to eat, but not everyone drinks coffee.”
Don’t get too caught up on the exact day of the week or time of the year you send out your requests. Everyone has a different rhythm to their work, so I recommend you just build your outreach list and start today.
WHAT IF PEOPLE DON’T RESPOND?
If what you’re sending out is not resulting in any meetings, make sure you take the time to critically evaluate how your outreach sounds. Share it with someone who can give you some candid feedback on how it lands.
If you’re certain your outreach is solid, and you STILL aren’t gaining any traction with people, don’t lose heart. Securing meetings is also a bit of a numbers game. “Some people are all too happy to help, while others are very guarded with their time,” says Thom Singer, the author of The ABCs of Networking. “Since you don’t know the other person’s propensity to network, you need to have a thick skin. Some people you reach out to will simply not be interested in talking with you. That’s okay, do not take it personally.”
Persistence, patience, and a bit of detachment can serve you well when it comes to cold outreach. Sometimes, it only takes one, “yes” to help catalyze the next positive move for your career. You never know how a small conversation with someone could plant the seeds for a big opportunity.
BUILD YOUR INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW OUTREACH LIST
The first step to getting started with informational interviewing is to build an outreach list. Download your free “Network Builder” worksheet (Excel required) to help you brainstorm potential contacts.
A version of this article was originally posted on Joseph Liu’s blog.