7 Ways to Make the Most of an Informational Interview
By Sarah Landrum, JobJenny.com guest writer
"I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness for practice and preparation.”
If flying on the wings of preparedness works for famous actor Will Smith, it can work for you, too. It’s obviously effective in Smith's celebrity world, but preparation is also an excellent tool in a much more common setting: the realm of interviewing. Being ready and knowledgeable — having done research in advance — at an interview is among the single best methods to support your ultimately landing the job.
Here’s a great way to do that homework ahead of time: conduct informational interviews.
You’ve already read 5 Good Reasons to Schedule Informational Interviews (No? Go check it out), in which we drill the importance of “due diligence.” Now it’s time to zero in on how to make the most of an informational interview once you've landed it.
Request The Interview Confidently
Informational interviews often require reaching out to strangers. When this is the case, it can feel uncomfortable, or as if you're maybe being too bold.
Remember, however, that -- so long as you don't ambush them or ask for way too much at once -- many professionals are happy to give other professionals a half hour of their time. They may even be flattered by your request for an informational interview (Have you ever met someone who doesn't love talking about herself?) Don’t let fear stand in the way. Worst-case scenario? You ask and they say no (in which case you’ll move on to someone else). No big deal!
- Keep It Short and Sweet
An informational interview should not be an all-day affair. You are taking time from someone else’s schedule, and you shouldn’t forget it. In fact, it might be wise to include your keep-it-short mentality in your initial request for an interview: “I am interested in a career change and wondered if I could steal 20-30 minutes of your time. I would like to ask some questions and learn more about your experience with company X” (or something like that).
Keep a particular time limit in mind (30 minutes or so is ideal) when drafting your questions so you don’t find yourself skimping on valid inquiries or accidently lose track of time. Also, offer to go to the person's location. You cannot expect anyone to drive across town. You do the heavy lifting.
- Show Up Prepared
In order to make the most of your short time block, you need to come prepared. You can’t waste time fumbling when you only have a half hour. You also can't expect the other party to lead the session. You invited her; take the wheel. What should you say or ask?
Generally speaking, it's best to ask questions that allow you to explore that person's role, or her experience in working for a particular organization. Think about this in advance -- What are you most curious about? What information will help to best prepare you for the meeting? What information will help you decide if you have interest in that person's line of work, or the company at which she works?
Need some examples? Check out the nine example questions we listed in our last post.
- Maintain an Air of Professionalism
While you're not there to ask for a job (in most cases, this will be viewed as ambush-y), the informational interview should be regarded with the same professional approach as the actual interview. It’s not a joke. It’s not a silly step in the job search process. It’s nothing to scoff at. An informational interview could make or break your chances to work for a particular organization. So take it seriously, or don't bother (This is kind of like "Go big, or go home.") Treat your counterpart with respect and intrigue, just as you would if you were in an actual job interview. And realize this: Most people like to talk about themselves. Be interested. Be engaged.
- Don't Be Pushy
The person sitting across the table may be your ticket into the company you'd give your left arm to work for. And, without a doubt, you'll probably enter this meeting hoping like heck that he's your golden ticket to the right decision maker. But don't expect this. It's called an informational interview for a reason; this is your chance to gather data, get a glimpse of what it's like to work at a particular firm, and IF YOU ARE LUCKY, develop a valuable "in" that may help you land a job.
However, this is something that has to happen organically. Being overly pushy (like foisting your resume on them, for example) is no way to sell yourself. Act confident, curious and professional; and your interviewee may be inclined to help you in any way he can.
- Express Appreciation, Stat
While a half hour isn’t much time, it’s still half an hour that your interviewee has taken from her busy schedule to meet with you, while (theoretically) getting nothing in return.
She's put effort — and time — into helping you, so be sure to show your gratitude abundantly and IMMEDIATELY. Everybody likes to be recognized for individual contributions, so don’t just assume they know you’re grateful — recognize it. Thank them in the beginning, at the end and send a note immediately upon leaving. Thank you matters. It matters a whole lot.
- Keep the Chain Going
Don't ever walk out of an informational interview without knowing which door you’ll knock on next. Before exiting, always ask the interviewee if, based on your conversation, there are 1-2 other people to whom you should introduce yourself. Note that we are not saying, "Ask this person to introduce you to a bunch of people." Noooo. Ask them for names, and suggest that you will introduce yourself. This is way less pushy and, if your conversation has gone well, the interviewee may very well insist on making the introduction for you.
So many people are befuddled (or terrified) when it comes to informational interviews, so they stay away from them entirely. Being the one who overcomes the confusion or fear (and takes a run at informational interviews) can give a tremendous leg up. It's a fantastic way to learn more about organizations and, better yet, endear yourself to the very people who could be your ticket in.
Get that ticket. Do the informational interviews. Do them right.
(Thank us later.)
Sarah Landrum is a recent Penn State grad, freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on navigating the work world. Her career development blog is all about helping young professionals land the job of their dreams and find happiness and success in their careers. Follow Sarah for more wisdom – and a side of wit - @SarahLandrum
Photo: Flickr.com Creative Commons (Vasalis Online)