An informational interview differs from a traditional job interview in many aspects. Both have significant bearing on your career prospects and ability to build a robust network. For successful professional interactions, learn how to modify your preparation and behavior to match the conversation and the occasion. Here are five skills to hone that will help you learn others’ stories, have engaging, productive conversations, and develop mutually-beneficial professional relationships.
For insights on how to land the interview in the first place, see my earlier post on the topic.
Once you set clear expectations, make sure to deliver on them. If the person you’re meeting agrees to a 20 minute appointment, confirm that timing at the conversation’s outset (i.e. “So it’s 1 pm now – does it still work for you to talk from now until 1:20?”), and then check-in with your interviewee again as the clock gets near that end-mark, making sure to thank them for their time and provide a clear segue to conclude the conversation. With this approach, you establish trust, reinforce your respect for their time and other commitments, and – ideally – leave the person wanting more conversation with you.
I gleaned this particular advice from Richard Bolles’ What Color is Your Parachute, a seminal resource for job searchers and career changes. His insights clued me in to the value of informational interviewing, and my experience trying out his methods in several job searches convinced me of the wisdom in his approach. If you’re looking for further reading to support your own career development, I recommend exploring his work.
Now, you may be wondering something along the lines of: “Won’t it be awkward to conclude an appointment like this? Why would I want to end a conversation that’s going really well?” It won’t derail your conversation to check-in with something simple like “I know we initially said we’d get together for 30 minutes, and I think we’re right around that mark now. I have some flexibility this afternoon and would love to continue the conversation if you have time?” Regardless of how they respond, your respect for their time speaks volumes.
2. Remain flexible – and read the situation
While it’s vital to follow-through on time-related expecations, you certainly don’t want to put a stopwatch on the table or rudely cut-off a great discussion. Learning to read your interviewee, their level of interest or enthusiasm, and a sense of how antsy or at-ease they are during your time together is vitally important. Some conversations will extend beyond the orginally-allotted time, so make sure you schedule yourself a buffer between the appointment’s anticipated end-time and any subsequent commitments. The last thing you want is to cut-short a meaningful conversation with a contact you’ve been trying to connect with for months.
Overall, it’s preferable to end while there’s still more to talk about – after all, that greatly increases your chances of this conversation being the initial conversation of an ongoing relationship. Be reflective and honest with yourself – if your informational interviews routinely go over the time allotted, ask yourself” “were they really as engaged and desperate to continue the conversation as I was?”
It’s entirely possible that your counterpart is warm, engaging, and enthusiastic in conversation, AND that they also have another pressing appointment after yours. Don’t mistake someone’s agreeability for license to extend your conversation indefinitely. Regardless of how natural or positive the conversation seems from your perspective, it’s still important to err on the side of communicating respect and value – and following-through on the expectations you set.
3. Skills for Success – Developing an Internal Clock and Mastering Non-Verbal Cues
As you engage in more of these conversations, you’ll get a better sense of how much time has elapsed and become more confident in reading other people’s body language. If the time constraint causes you particular concern, try using a stopwatch or timer during a casual conversation with a friend (after explaining in advance what you’re up to, of course), or while watching an episode of your favorite show. Practicing this will develop familiarity with what 15-20 minutes of dialogue feels like.
Beyond interrupting a conversation verbally, you can also look for ways to give your conversation partner an opening to end the conversation. A subtle way to do this is to close your notebook after jotting down some remark they’ve shared, but still leaving it on the table. This signal gives your partner an ‘out’ – if they’ve been looking for one – without actually closing the conversation. Experiment with what feels most natural to you, and consider both verbal and non-verbal ways to respect expectations and also indicate openness to continuing a meeting.
4. Good Manners are generally, well, good.
But abusing someone’s expense account or trying to force questions out of a sandwich-filled mouth are decidedly…less so.
Practically speaking, you don’t have to drink coffee at every appointment (or any of them, but who would want to avoid coffee entirely?). It’s professional to at least offer to treat the person meeting you to some sort of refreshment, but don’t be surprised if they decline – they might also have an efficiently-scheduled morning of ‘coffee’ appointments. It’s also quite possible that your interviewee may offer to treat you to something. Almost certainly, the person you’re interviewing has been on your side of these conversations, and may take this as an opportunity to pay forward someone else’s professional generosity. Besides, benefitting from an expense account isn’t the a terrible way to get through the day.
If the other person is paying, make sure you defer to whatever cost range they’re ordering within – appearing like you’re taking advantage of the situation is a great way to tank an interview before it starts.
Regardless of who’s covering the check, get a beverage at your own desire and discretion, but generally let your counterpart dictate whether there’s going to be any actual eating involved, as that would typically require more than 15-20 minutes. From the rest of this article, you already know how important it is to stay within your agreed-upon time limits. It’s also difficult to have an engaging and thoughtful conversation when you’re the only person whose mouth is stuffed with a dry Starbuck’s scone.
5. The Conversation Itself: What should you talk about?
Humans are wired to enjoy hearing (1) their own name and (2) the sound of their own voice. Keep both of those items in mind to maximize your informational interviewing effectiveness.
Prepare by researching the person you’re meeting with, specifically focusing on aspects of their professional journey that most align with your own search and interests. This is a great opportunity to gain some insights about a past or present employer – while making sure not to come across as seeking dirt or gossip. An informational setting is ideal for questions of this nature. There’s much less implicit pressure to sell you on any particular company’s merits, so you’re more likely to get a candid picture of what life at the organization is like, and how it might fit with your own goals and preferences.
You’re role in the conversation is first and foremost to learn. It’s up to you to help guide the conversation in a productive direction, and structure your remarks so your colleague ideally does the majority of the talking. At the same, you’ll best grow your network and uncover new opportunities if the other person leaves the conversation with a clear idea of your own skills and experiences – and what you’re looking for in a next-step. How can you accomplish these seemingly contradictory goals without seeming self-serving?
Here are a few items to prepare in advance and look for natural opportunities to weave into conversation:
Your ‘elevator pitch’
Who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re looking for – all in 30 seconds or less. Use this in the first couple of minutes of the interview, either when asked something like, “So, how can I help?” or to proactively transition the conversation from initial pleasantries.
Stories of your own professional success
Much as you should with a traditional job interview, have 3-4 strong examples of success and growth from your own career, education, or personal life. These might come from a different field or context, but they should directly connect to your preferred profession and relate to your current conversation. You likely won’t get to tell all of these stories in any given interaction, so reflect in advance so you’re prepared to share the strongest example for the circumstances.
Story related to current job search/career change
You may or may not have something to fit this suggestion. An ideal example should explain how you decided on your career change, what is motivating your current search, or some other anecdote that clearly exemplifies why your chosen path is the best fit for your passions and skills.
You: the Solution to Their Problem
This is also something that may or may not apply to you and your situation. But, if you know an obstacle confronting this person or their organization and see ways you could help solve the issue, definitely make an effort to show how your skill set and interests meet their needs. This isn’t about making a sales pitch; it’s an opportunity for you to establish yourself as a collaborator, thought-partner, and peer. Successfully executing this strategy has the potential to open up a litany of previously invisible or inaccessible professional doors.
Ideal Next Steps
Want a connection to a specific company? Eager to get your resume in front of a decision-maker? Looking for feedback on how to present some element of your background or experience? Or just know that this person knows many of the people you need to meet to make your next transition a successful one? Whatever your ideal outcome of the informational interview might be, walk in prepared and with a clear vision of an ‘Ask.’ Even if your conversation gets cut short or interrupted, this means you’re equipped to voice your preferred next steps on the way out the door.
Striking the balance between sharing about yourself and prioritizing learning your interviewee’s story and professional journey is a bit of an art, and a skill you’ll develop with practice. Focus on drawing out the other person’s voice while sharing a few key items from your own experience, and you’ll find yourself readily engaging in lively, productive conversations.
6. Communicate Gratitude and Reaffirm Value
End and/or follow-up on your informational interview with some tangible next step and a clear expression of the value derived from the conversation. The easiest next-step – and surest way to ensure your networking journey never reaches a dead-end – is to ask for another connection or two, based on the conversation and your interests. Present yourself in the posture of a dedicated learner, asking something to the effect of:
“I’m setting up many conversations like this one while I’m learning more about opportunities in [industry/field]. Can you think of 1-2 people in your network that I should connect with, based on our conversation today?”
Personal Tip: Nearly all of my jobs and projects in the past several years have come from people or organizations who were initially 2nd or 3rd degree connections, or who were several conversations removed from where my initial search began. Expanding your immediate circle to include your network’s networks exponentially grows your reach and vastly improves your prospects.
In terms of non-verbal communication, perhaps you reopen your notebook to jot down one final insight as you prepare to leave, clearly showing that your interviewee’s remarks warrant remembering. Make sure this is authentic and not contrived (blatant flattery will likely ring hollow in such a setting; besides, it’s gross), but don’t be afraid to let your interviewee know that you found their input significant.
Afterwards, just like you would with a formal job interview, send a thank you email or follow-up note within 24 hours (you would do this, wouldn’t you?). Ideally, mention something specific from your conversation that stuck with you or that you’re interested in exploring further. If there were any agreed upon next steps, make sure to briefly outline and express gratitude for those as well.
i.e. “I appreciate your offer to connect me with your friend in the publishing industry. Would you be able to e-introduce me via this email address?”
Unless it’s dictated by one of your next-steps, avoid asking for anything else in this follow-up email that requires any more time or effort from your interviewee beyond what they’ve already offered. However, if you have additional value to contribute, that’s always a positive note to end on.
i.e. “Our discussion of personal branding led me to some additional research and reflection. Have you seen this recent article from the NY Times about the importance of branding for organizational leaders?”
The blog post version of this advice: promise a five-point article, but deliver six valuable sections instead.
Informational – and transformational – Interviews
Well-executed informational interviews provide opportunities to glean valuable information moving your job hunt or career change forward, while simultaneously build meaningful professional relationships. Certainly beats churning out cover letters for software algorithms to analyze and discard.