The Informational Interview – Why You Should Do One and How to Master It

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When was the last time you set a meeting with a professional in your field for a reason other than to interview for a specific job?

It’s probably been a while – if ever.

It’s natural to spend most of our energy searching for a great job and producing top-quality applications for positions that excite us. Afterall, that’s the traditional route to our goal of being gainfully employed – send in an application, go through an interview and finally, if we’ve done things right, we get a job!

But we live in a vastly different economy than the one our professors and employers faced when they first entered the job market. There’s a much greater emphasis on self-learning and expanding our networks. The onus is on us to identify what skills we need to get the job we want and how to acquire them.

Plus, as recruiters easily get hundreds of applications per position, it becomes more important than ever that we know the right people, contacts who can put a familiar face or recommendation to our application.

That’s why it’s important to investigate and dig deeper into the nuances of your target industry. Getting a better sense of its workplace culture, standard professional practices and team dynamics can give you a serious leg-up when it comes to showing a potential employer that you’re the best person to hire.

But how do we gain access to this kind of insider information before we start working?

This is where the informational interview comes in.

Wait, What’s an Informational Interview?

An informational interview is a casual, no-strings attached conversation between yourself and a professional where you talk about anything career related. While it’s likely that you will be the less senior of the two, that doesn’t mean that they won’t have questions for you too! It can be something as low-key as a coffee chat at your local Starbucks or a short visit to their office during lunch hours. Either way, you both stand to gain from sharing a conversation.

How Do I Set Up an Informational Interview?

First, search for people that you’d like to chat with. Ask around your personal network, Google professional profiles and check the directories of companies you’d love to work for. Narrow down a few names and find a way to contact them, such as an email or a social media account that accepts direct messages.

Then, and this is the tough part – simply ask! Be polite, succinct and respectful. Check out this sample e-invitation below.

Hi Michelle,

I’m a huge fan of your marketing and advertising work for McDonald’s! I recently graduated from marketing at Ryerson and would love a few minutes of your time to gain insight about the industry. Would you be open to grabbing a quick cup of coffee or lunch, on me? I’d deeply appreciate it!

Thank you!

Sincerely,

Your Name

Make sure to reference why you chose them to invite on an informational interview, such as a campaign or project they’re known for. This will give them a better sense of what kinds of questions you’ll be asking during the informational interview and whether or not they’d be comfortable in answering them.

Another key part of the e-invitation is to offer a bit of information about yourself. Are you a current student looking to get ahead? A recent grad excited about developing her or his career? Or even a novice, who is ready to take their craft to the next level? You want to make sure that you’re giving your potential interviewee a good picture of who you are and what perspective you can offer so they can ask you questions too!

Finally, ask if they’d like to grab a quick coffee, drinks or lunch. Notice the word “quick” – it’s important that you let them know that you’re aware that their time is very valuable and that you are not going to take up too much of it. It’s a basic yet key sign of respect towards a senior professional who would be doing you a big favour by saying yes!

And that’s it! Above all, keep your e-invitation brief and to-the-point. If they’re open to it, they’ll respond. If not, they’ll either refuse or ignore it. Either way, don’t take it personally – looking for an informational interview is kind of like shooting in the dark, especially when you’re just starting out in your career. Do your best, message more than one professional and be patient for results!

Okay, I Have a Meeting Set-Up, Now What?

There are three key things to remember when you’re going into an informational interview. One is that you’re the interviewer – make sure you come prepared with at least 10 questions. Memorize them if you can and just in case you forget them, jot them down in a notebook or sticky note you can bring with you.

Secondly, just relax. This isn’t a formal job interview. It’s two professionals having a conversation. Dress comfortably and professionally. You don’t need to pull out your game day outfit for this but you do want to make a great first impression.

Last but not least, be present. Before you go in to meet them, turn off your phone and pull out a non-intrusive way to record key insights, like a pen and paper. Nothing is more flattering than an active listener but alternatively, nothing spoils an informational interview faster than not paying attention. Make eye contact, nod and offer your insights during pauses – doing so will let them know that you’re fully focused on them.

The Interview Went Great. Now What Do I Do?

So you went on an informational interview and it went well. Amazing job! Don’t forget to send a thank you email or message on the day of or the day after, latest.

And if you can, add a few lines on how the informational interview personally touched you. Something like this:

Hi Michelle,

Thanks again for an incredible conversation! It was fascinating for me to hear about how you started as a photographer and discovered animation by accident. Your story inspires me to stay dedicated to my craft and work harder in my career. Thank you so much for giving me a chance to speak with you!

If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know!

Sincerely,

Your Name

Letting your interviewee know how their story has positively impacted you shows them that a, you paid attention and b, the informational interview was a success! This will make them open for future informational interviews with you, should you choose to ask them once more.

Also, don’t forget to offer your willingness to help them out too. An informational interview should be a two-way street. Even though it’s unlikely that a more senior professional will need your help, you still want to emphasize that you’d be open to them contacting you again if they’d like to. Maybe a freelancer will drop out of a future project and they’ll contact you to fill in! Or they’re having an event geared for young people and would love to have you there. The potential for greater opportunities is endless – so keep the door open in case something awesome comes up.

No matter where you are in your career, an informational interview can give you the professional insight you’ve been looking for. Though it might be terrifying at first, be brave, message a couple professionals and wait for your first yes. The experience can provide you with insider knowledge on what it takes to succeed in your industry and give you access to a valuable contact. And who knows – it might help you get hired for your next role!

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