Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about your industry, expand your network, and learn from other people’s experiences. To make the most out of them, however, it’s important to know the best informational interview questions to ask, to prepare well, and to find the right interview subjects.
With that in mind, here’s how you can have a great informational interview.
An informational interview is an informal meeting with someone who already works in an industry you are interested in.
It is something you can do when starting out in your career, when changing careers, or simply as a way to learn from someone with more experience than you.
An informational interview is an opportunity for you to learn more about a type of career from someone with firsthand experience. You can ask them about the industry at large, about the different companies that might be hiring, the kinds of roles available, and more.
Informational interviews give you insight that you can’t get online. Researching a company on your own is useful, but it isn’t likely to give you the nuanced perspective that comes from years of lived experience.
An experienced interviewee will have better knowledge of the local scene, a personal story that informs their opinions, and advice tailored for your particular situation. They might know of career paths you haven’t considered, companies you haven’t heard of, and skills you hadn’t thought to develop.
Informational interviews can also give you a head start in expanding your professional network. Senior people in your industry are a valuable resource, even if you only meet with them for a few minutes. Their advice could lead you to new institutions or communities where you can meet other professionals in your industry, and they may refer you to specific people for additional informational interviews.
If you really hit it off, your interview subject could even become a mentor or confidant as you begin your career. If they know someone who’s hiring, they could have a role for you (though this should not be your goal going in). An informational interview is usually just a 15 or 30 minute conversation over coffee, but when everything goes right it could be the beginning of a business relationship.
An informational interview is also good practice in preparation for job interviews. You get to meet someone and talk to them in a professional context, but without the pressure to perform as in a typical interview. You can develop your conversational skills with no risk of losing out on a job opportunity.
If you are new to your career, you may not have developed a large professional network yet. This could make informational interviews more difficult to find, but it also makes them more useful. When your network is small, meeting new people is important.
To find the right people to meet with, start with the professional network you do have. A personal connection is always the best way to meet someone. Even if you don’t have colleagues to talk to, ask friends, family members, and anyone else you know if they have any connections in your industry. Even if your friends aren’t in the same field as you, they might know someone who is. You never know where a connection will come from.
Another good place to look for interviews is in educational institutions. If you have taken classes related to your industry, professors and classmates are a good place to start expanding your network. If you have the time and money, you could even sign up for a few classes to make some connections there (and gain new skills). If you have already been to college, try reaching out to your alumni network.
When you have exhausted your personal connections, look online. Seek out people on LinkedIn and Twitter, participate in virtual events, and sign up for any relevant newsletters you can find. Try to find seminars and conferences you can attend and forums you can join.
Once you have a contact in mind, reach out to them by email, social media, or with a phone call as appropriate. Tell them about how you found them online, or about how you heard their name from a colleague. Make it clear that you just want to ask a few questions about them and aren’t angling for a job.
If you heard about your interview subject through a friend, ask the friend for an introduction. A referral from someone who knows you will make it more likely that the potential interviewee will accept the invitation to meet.
Making the most of a meeting like this takes more than just knowing the right informational interview questions to ask. Use these simple strategies for getting the information you need while making a great impression.
You should know what you want to discuss before the informational interview begins. In fact, you should know before it has even been scheduled. If you contact someone by phone, they may have time right at that moment, so you should have at least an idea of what kind a conversation you want to have before you reach out.
To get ready for the interview, research the person you are meeting and the company they work for. Looking at their LinkedIn and other online media should give you context for what they do, what the company does, and could inspire the specific questions you ask.
You should also research the larger industry. You don’t want to seem too naive; though this isn’t a job interview, you still want to leave a good impression. Understand the landscape of the industry so you don’t waste any time asking questions that could easily be answered by a Google search, and try to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic. Knowing a bit of jargon and knowledge common to the field can go a long way.
You should also plan how you want the interview to go.The conversation should flow naturally, but you can still have ideas for what questions you want answered. Memorizing these questions can help you keep the meeting on track, and there is nothing wrong with bringing notes. If you are worried about seeming nervous or stumbling over your words, practice the questions with friends and family beforehand.
You can bring your resume or portfolio with you to the meeting, but leave them in your bag unless they come up organically. It’s important to make sure you have the right rapport before you ask for resume advice. If you bring out a resume before it’s appropriate, you might seem like you are looking for a job from your interview subject, which could catch them off guard.
An informational interview isn’t a job interview. The focus isn’t on your experience, it’s on the interviewee’s experience.
You can offer a brief background for yourself and your goals so they have the right context for the interview, but the focus should always be on them. This is your opportunity to learn about how someone in their position got to where they are. You are there to learn, not to sell yourself or get a job.
The conversation should flow smoothly, but be prepared to guide it back to the interview subject and their experience as needed. You don’t need to be pushy, or grill them like an interrogator, but you only have a limited time and you don’t want to waste it. They are doing you a favour, so it’s important to keep the meeting short and on-topic as much as possible.
While an informational interview is a work-related meeting, you shouldn’t be too curt or businesslike. Be friendly and professional, and try to make the experience pleasant for your interview subject. Greet them warmly, buy their coffee, and express your appreciation. They’re doing you a favour, after all.
Have a normal conversation, and don’t ask them for too much too soon, such as a referral or an endorsement. You don’t want to seem rude, or as though you are taking advantage. This is just a meeting, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask for more favours. They should come away from the interview impressed and comfortable with the interaction, not annoyed at you.
As the interview is ending, ask for their business card or find where you can connect with them online. Connecting on LinkedIn or following them on Twitter can be a small step towards developing a longer relationship.
After the interview, be sure to follow up. A simple follow-up email goes a long way towards establishing your reputation as a polite person. The better your interviewee likes you, the more likely they are to want to maintain a professional connection after the interview.
“Good afternoon, __ ,
Thank you for the coffee yesterday morning. I really appreciate your taking the time to meet with me and share your experience.
I think your advice to get more involved with local business groups is a very good idea. I have already followed you and other important thought leaders on Twitter and joined some local industry groups on Facebook. Maybe our paths will cross again soon at an event!
Thank you again for your time. Your insights were very valuable.
If it wouldn’t be weird to do so, keep in touch. If they gave you specific advice, like a certain person to talk to or an event to attend, follow up to thank them and tell them that their advice worked. Engage with them online by liking their tweets and sharing their LinkedIn posts. As more of the work world moves online, an internet friendship can be as valuable as a real one.
Informational interviews are never a bad idea. Even if you already have an established career, it’s acceptable to pick someone’s brain if they might know something you don’t.
This first interview subject is just one person among many, and their experience won’t tell you everything. Schedule more interviews to get a better, wider view of the industry. The more you learn, the more knowledgeable and prepared you will be.
You don’t know exactly where the conversation will go, so it’s important to have a large number of questions ready. This way, you will be able to ask something relevant, no matter where the interview takes you.
When the interview starts, try to warm up your interview subject with some easy questions. You don’t want to come on too strong with difficult questions about the industry. Begin with easy, open-ended questions about them and their career:
Once you have established a rapport, you can move on to bigger questions about the industry at large:
Now that you have gained some insight into the industry, you can try asking for more specific advice. You should give your interviewee a sense of your goals and skill set, and see what they can tell you about breaking into the industry:
Community Success Manager & CV Writing Expert
Ben is a writer, customer success manager and CV writing expert with over 5 years of experience helping job-seekers create their best careers. He believes in the importance of a great resume summary and the power of coffee.
Having the right answers is an important part of a successful job interview, but having the right questions is important too. Make sure you know what you're going to ask your employer before your next interview.
June 18, 2020