Two types of people should conduct informational interviews: those who know exactly what they want to do, and those who don't – in other words, everyone. If you don't know what you want to do, you should set up informational interviews with people from a variety of different fields. Your goal is to find out how your personal plans fit with the plans of a particular profession. Keep interviewing folks until you have a better idea of what you want to do for a career. Once you figure it out, you will still need to conduct informational interviews, but with a more specific purpose. Instead of interviewing to simply gain information, you should interview to get advice about how to enter a particular career field, build your network, and gain the attention of people in organizations who can influence hiring decisions. The key to effective informational interviewing lies in asking for advice, not for a job.
Like any interview, the informational interview should be divided into three parts, the pre-interview, interview, and post-interview. You'll notice that the least important part of the interview process is the actual interview. It should be a breeze if you're adequately prepared, and you should get exactly what you want out of the meeting if you follow up properly.
Before you request an informational interview of anyone you need to do some homework on yourself first. What are your goals for the conversation? You should be able to articulate why you're contacting them, because they may ask. You should be familiar with your skills and accomplishments and be prepared to talk about them. Understand how your transferable skills apply to the industry or field in which you seek to gain information.
You should interview thought leaders, former colleagues, business insiders, and other professionals in the field to get relevant information about different functions, companies, and opportunities.
To set up the informational interview you should send an email or make a phone call. I prefer calling because it's a lost art nowadays and it takes audacity to cold-call a stranger to request their time; it's easy to send an email hoping for something to happen, but they, too, can be effective.
If emailing, err on the side of formality. Use complete sentences, proper grammar and punctuation. The subject line should identify the topic and context of your email. In the body of the email, state the reason why you're writing (to get advice and information), who you are, and how you got their contact information. Be specific about when you would like to meet and how much time you'll need, but be sure that they know you are working around their time. The email shouldn't be longer than a screenshot. If they need to scroll down the page to read your email, you've written too much.
If calling, be brief and straight to the point. Follow the same format as you would in the email but cut to the chase sooner. You should project confidence and be conversational and friendly in tone. Thank them for their time and ask if it's okay to follow up via email. If you must leave a voice message, let them know that you will also follow up by email in case it's more convenient for them.
Regardless of how you contact professionals, emphasize that you are only looking for advice and information. Be specific in your intentions and ask for a specific amount of their time, 20 minutes should be long enough to make a great impression. If you're prepared, you can learn a lot within that period of time. If they don't get back to you within two weeks, follow up with them and remind them that you know that they're busy but you will not occupy much of their time, and reiterate how excited you are about the opportunity. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so follow up every two weeks until they respond.
In your preparation for the meeting, be sure to do some research about the industry, the company, the job functions, the individual you'll be speaking with, and any recent news that may be relevant to your conversation. Prepare a list of questions in which you cannot find out the answers on Google. Your questions should lean more toward advice and opinions based on your research about the industry, the function, and the individual's background.
Showtime! All your preparation will payoff if you're sincere. Approach the interview with a genuine interest and excitement to learn. If you're meeting in person, introduce yourself, don't sit down unless requested or the person you're meeting sits down first. After a few moments of small talk, outline the agenda for the meeting, and remind the individual why you're interested in meeting with them. Then proceed to ask your questions. You don't know a person by the answers they give, but by the questions they ask, so make sure your questions are thoughtful. Be sure to take notes and be active in your listening. Stick to the time you agreed to even if the interviewee insist on going longer, they will appreciate the fact that you respect their time. Don't feel compelled to squeeze everything in that meeting since you intend to build a lasting relationship with that person, you should plan to see them again. Express appreciation for their time and energy, and gracefully exit their office.
The post-interview is the most important part of the informational interviewing process because you build relationships by following up. How you follow up, when you follow up, what you say when following up, and how often you follow up are essential in building a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with the people you interview.
Send a thank you note or email. It's always best to send a brief, hand-written thank you note because people are less likely to discard them. They may even leave it on their desk for a while. Let them know how you plan to follow their advice. And if you made any commitments during the initial interview, be sure to follow through when you said you would.
Keep in touch in different ways. Send interesting articles their way about the industry, follow them on LinkedIn and other social media networks, congratulate them on any recent successes they've had, ask if they plan to attend industry events and let them know that you'll be there. You can even invite them to lunch if you've developed your relationship to the point where it's acceptable.
After all these interactions, you would have clearly demonstrated your interest to professionals and soon enough, they will begin to open doors for you. They will introduce you to other professionals who will also have a positive impression of you, and your reputation as an up-and-coming young professional in the industry will spread; and soon you will be a leader in the field yourself.
Remember, never give the impression that you are building these relationships to get a job. Understand that it will take time to build these relationships so don't expect too much too soon. Your goal is to build trust and rapport organically, and that takes time. Think of this kind of networking as a friendship. Once you become friends, you can do no wrong in their eyes and your friends will have your back through thick and thin.
When young professionals reach out to you to request an informational interview, you'll think back on your experience in mastering this technique.