The informational interview is the secret tool everyone should have in their back pocket. A hybrid of an amazing networking opportunity, an info session, and a job interview, it can give anyone looking for a job or pondering a career change insider scoop.
With the right approach, you can land these interviews (and maybe even a job). Here’s our advice for finding and approaching potential contacts and getting them to say yes—every time.
Find the Right People
Start by making a list of companies you’d love to work at and of job titles or positions you’d be interested in. While people who fit on either list are good, someone who works for your dream company and has your dream role is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
That said, it’s important to consider what the person does at the company and the size of the company—you want to target people who are in an aspirational role, but who aren't so high up that they won’t have time to meet with you. I may want to talk to the CEO of a major company, but I can probably learn more talking to the marketing director of a smaller company. Remember the goal is not to find a job but to learn insider info.
I prefer using LinkedIn to find people, but then reaching out over email—it’s easier for people to respond to, and you won’t look like LinkedIn spam.
Perfect the Art of the Ask
Any good cold email has two things: a clear message (why you’re reaching out), and an easy-to-understand ask (the action you want the recipient to take). Here’s a simple formula that checks both boxes and that will work most of the time:
1. Start by Asking for Help
This sounds obvious (and, OK, a little weird), but it’s a proven fact that people love to feel like they are helping others. So, if you literally start by saying, “I’d love your help,” or “I hope you’ll be able to help me out...” your chances of getting a positive response go up significantly.
2. Be Clear
Ask for something very specific, and make it as easy as possible for the person to say yes. Saying, “I’d love to know more about what you do and how you got your start” is okay, but doesn’t tell someone how much of their time you’re after or what you’re really suggesting. Instead, try something like, “I’d love to take you to a quick coffee so I can hear your perspective on this industry and what it’s like to work at your company. I’ll actually be in your area next week and would be happy to meet you wherever is convenient for you.”
3. Have a Hook
A great way to increase your chance of landing the interview is to demonstrate why you really want to meet with this person. Do you admire their career path? Do you think the work they’re currently doing at company X stands out as the best? Maybe you have a shared connection and think they would be a great voice of wisdom. Don’t be afraid to share why you are specifically reaching out to this person. The more personalized your ask feels, the greater chance of success you’ll have.
4. Be Very Considerate
Remember that, in asking for an informational interview, you’re literally asking someone to put their work on hold to help you. Show your contact you understand this by saying, “I can only imagine how busy you must get, so even 15-20 minutes would be so appreciated.”
5. Make Sure You Don't Seem Like You’re Looking for a Job (Even if You Are)
If you sound like you’re really just looking for a job, there’s a good chance this person will push you to HR or the company’s career page. So be sure to make it clear that you really want to talk to them, to learn about their career history and perspective on the job or industry. After you meet and make a great impression is when you can mention the job hunt.
3 Steps to a Perfect Informational Interview
Let’s say you managed the tricky process of asking for an informational interview (and yes, we've got tips for that, too) and have succeeded in arranging a meeting with an amazing contact.
What now? How do you make the most of this conversation—while still keeping things casual and comfortable?
As always, it’s just a matter of being prepared. Here’s a three-part process for your next meeting that’ll make sure you get the advice you need and make a great impression.
1. Warm Up
People love to talk about themselves, so when you first sit down, let them! Get the conversation going by asking your contact something about his or her experiences thus far—something he or she knows all about. Some good places to begin:
- How did you get your start in this field?
- What’s it like working at your company?
- What projects are you working on right now?
- What’s your opinion on [exciting development in the industry]?
You should also be prepared to chat about yourself, your past experiences, and your career goals. Remember, this meeting isn’t just a time to ask for advice and learn from your contact’s experiences—it’s also a chance to make an impression. For example, don’t be afraid to preface your questions with what you already know. Something like, “It looks like recent developments in the field of software development because of COVID-19, I heard they are going to be pretty disruptive to the retail industry. How do you think this will affect your company?”
2. Get What You Want
After you’ve made some general conversation, it’s time to move on to what you came for: the advice you can’t get anywhere else.
Before the meeting, think through the insider information you want to learn from this person. What information are you seeking? Is there something you can learn from this person that would be difficult for you to learn on your own? Depending on where you are in the job search process, adjust your questions accordingly.
For example, if you’re still in exploration mode, trying to find out if, say, working for an educational technology start-up is for you, then ask questions like:
- How did you choose this company or position over others in your field?
- What is the most rewarding thing about working in this industry? The most challenging?
- My background is in urban planning—how do you think I can best leverage my previous experience for this field?
If you’re further along in your job search and could use some job hunting and interviewing tips for specific companies, don’t be afraid to ask questions like:
- I’m waiting to hear back about interviews for positions—what advice would you give me about how to best prepare?
- What experiences, skills, or personality traits does your company look for in new hires?
- What do you wish you had done differently when you first started at your company?
- What job search advice would you give to someone in my situation?
Of course, you’ll want go with the flow of the conversation—you’re trying to build a relationship, not fire off as many questions as you can. Also remember that what these questions have in common is that they are all seeking advice. Keep it that way. It’s no mystery that you are clearly looking for a new position or career change, and the fastest way to alienate your contact is to ask for a job (or anything along those lines). If your contact offers to forward your resume based on your conversation, then by all means, take advantage of it. But that process is for him or her to initiate, not you.
3. Tap into Their Network
That said, as you’re wrapping up the meeting, you should ask for recommendations for two or three more people who would be good to talk to as you continue networking. The likelihood someone will take time to chat with you goes up significantly if your initial request comes through a mutual contact, so it’s a fast, easy way to talk to even more people.
The key here is to make your request as specific as possible. This might be counterintuitive, but it actually makes it easier for your contact to think of someone when you say, “Could you recommend a couple more people for me to speak with to learn more about low carbon cement engineering?” than to come up with an answer to, “Is there anyone else you would recommend that I speak with?”