Informational Interviews: 5 Pieces of Advice

Informational interviews are a misnomer, if not a contradiction in terms. As a general rule, short discussions with strangers are rarely the best way to gain useful advice. It’s therefore not surprising that most informational interviews are often vaguely frustrating. The interviewer wonders why he didn’t hear any particularly interesting insights, while the interviewee regrets spending 30 minutes answering broad, meandering questions about her career. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

These quick meetings can be interesting and valuable. Some advice for those seeking advice:

1. Prepare ahead of time.

It’s clichéd, but true – the amount you get out of something is directly proportional to the effort you put into it.

It’s far easier for someone to offer concrete advice about things he or she has actually done. This requires, however, that you know his or her background, beyond their current job title. Broad, unfocused questions – of the “tell me about your life” variety – make you sound like you haven’t done any preparation. Don’t waste time asking questions that you can easily find out by reading someone’s bio online or through a quick Google search. Do your research and use that to build out thoughtful, structured questions that will get you to the information you want.

2. Know exactly what you want to get out of the interview.

There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of information that your interlocutor can provide:

First is substantive information – answers to specific questions you have about the sector or the work your interlocutor does.

Second is process information – answers to specific questions about career path, skills or experience most valuable for specific roles, and the trade-offs involved in choosing one kind of position over another.

Third is networking information – what other people might be useful contacts. If a connection is suggested that’s of interest to you, ask for more information and/or an introduction. Don’t ask someone to connect you with a contact you don’t really think you want to follow up with, politely tell them you don’t need that introduction at this time (rather than saying ok and then never following up).

Have a clear sense of what kind of information is most important to you and prioritize your questions accordingly.

3. Remember, the more specific your questions, the better.

Specific questions not only show that you’ve prepared, but make it easier for your interlocutor to offer concrete advice.

4. Be cognizant of time.

Suggest a location that’s convenient for your interlocutor and show up on time. Don’t ramble. Assume the person you’re speaking with will have, at most, 30 minutes, and budget your time accordingly.

5. Follow through.

Send a thank you email that day or the next (including a reminder of any connections or information you expressed interest in during the conversation). If the person does make an introduction for you, follow through in a timely manner. Connections are valuable and personal, don’t abuse them. People notice and remember.

You can also continue to follow up with contacts down the road, be sure not to write too often but let them know where you end up when you take a new job or if you meet with their connections.

Sound simple? It is! Yet a surprising number of people miss out on the potential value of informational interviews by skipping these basic steps. It’s amazing how easy it can be to stand out and make these interactions valuable for you and your interviewee – so get out there and network well!