Why the term "informational interview" makes me (and lots of others) want to run screaming from you.

I will preface this post with an emphatic disclaimer that I'm an NOT opposed to meetings in which a job seeker sits down with an experienced professional and asks questions about a career in a particular field, and/or with a particular company. And then thanks them for their time.

Not at all.

In fact, when these sessions are done well, they can be brilliant networking opportunities and the entry point to lengthy, mutually beneficial relationships.

But because job seekers abuse the term, and the point of "informational interviews" so frequently?

The term alone, no less a request to participate in an informational interview makes plenty of professionals want to run screaming from their desks yelling "No! No! No! No! Anything but an informational interview!"

Allow me to explain why, and then I will outline how you can actually set up this type of session in a way that works to your advantage rather than makes the requestee feel like you're calling them at dinnertime asking them to buy a satellite dish or term life insurance from some company no one's ever heard of.

Why the term makes people want to run screaming from you:

  1. Too many job seekers have abused it. An informational interview is not an interview. You are not supposed to ask for a job at this type of deal, nor are you supposed to force your resume, portfolio, demo tapes or any other "hire me, hire me now" types of materials on the person who has agreed to share information. But many, many, many people who have preceded you have done just this, and that's made a lot of professionals feel rather put off by the whole "informational interview" concept.
  2. Too many job seekers have showed up unprepared. When a busy professional grants you his or her time, to voluntarily share information and answer your questions? Your job is to be grateful, and to arrive at the informational interview, on time and prepared with specific questions about breaking into the field, working at that particular company, trends in that industry, relevant trade associations, etc.
  3. Too many job seekers have worn out their welcomes. Engaging with experienced people within your field of interest is not a synonym for stalking. Those who agree to share their expertise, wisdom and counsel are doing you a favor because they probably remember that it isn't so easy to break into certain jobs, fields or companies, and also because they probably genuinely care about you and want to help. But if you treat them like your lifeline, your mom or your on-call psychologist? The probability of a lengthy relationship with that professional is going to be near-zero. And, yes, if you're epic clingy? That may give the company's HR team a 'heads up' on you. Which will not work in your favor.

So, does this mean to avoid asking experienced people in your field if they'll sit down and chat with you about the field? No, it does not.

It means you need to frame your request in a way that won't trigger a gag reflex when they hear it. A few ideas:

  • Approach in a creative way. "Coffee" and "informational interview" are entirely overused. Why not go with something like this:

Dear Joe Smith, I thought you'd be pleased to know that 2/3 of the graduating class at PSU is talking about you and that hilarious giraffe ad you created for Johnstone Tires. They designated me as the guy to give you a collective high-five from the group. Kudos! I'm just finishing up finals week here and then will have my degree in advertising. I wonder if you may have 15-30 minutes available to answer a few questions I have about proceeding in an advertising career. Clearly, you are a master. Can I bring some bagels to your office one morning this month?

  • Work to their schedule. Nothing further needs to be said about this one.
  • Arrive with questions specific to the company, the industry and the field you're trying to work within. Do a little research on the person agreeing to meet you, and use your knowledge to build rapport and ask questions specific to their background.
  • If someone has referred you, use their name. Referrals will get you everywhere in the job search process, and this includes when you're attempting to set up an informational interview.
  • Don't bring your resume. Don't ask for a job. Again, this is not a job interview. (If it were, it wouldn't have that little "informational" word in front of it). If you get to the point during your conversation that they'd like to see a resume, use that amazing tool we call email and send them one when you get home from the meeting.
  • Thank them, immediately. Thank them at the end of the conversation, and then, that very day, send a thank you email or note as a follow up.