Well, the simple answer to that question is to get information. But let’s dig a little deeper…
One of the best sources for gathering information about what is happening in an industry is to talk to people currently working in that field. An informational interview is an interview that you initiate. You ask the questions with the purpose being to obtain information – not to get a job. If you want to find out how to get to where you want to go, talk to someone who’s already there.
An informational interview is one sure way to find out if your skills and qualifications match your targeted job. You can find out about the requirements and daily tasks of the position you are interested in, plus many tips for success and insight into the future of your desired field. It can also eliminate “surprises” in the actual job interview. Moreover, informational interviews can help you develop employment leads and gain experience with interviewing. It is not unusual for an informational interview to lead to a job offer.
Now, how you go about getting an informational interview and what questions you ask are completely up to you. There is no set way to do it but here are some tips to make your informational interviews effective:
1) Identify what you want to achieve
You must first decide what you want and where you want to go. It is impossible for someone else to figure that out for you. It is something you have to do on your own. Do you want to figure out if your current career is where you really should be? Do you want someone to look at your resume and tell you what you’re “lacking?” Do you want to know how to get a promotion? Do you want to know how to break into a new industry?
2) Pick 10 people in your desired industry who can help you
Once you’ve identified your goal, pick 10 people in your desired industry who can help you achieve it. This may be someone in the exact position you want to be in or someone in management. This will take some research. You will have to look at different companies to see who they have in certain positions. LinkedIn is an excellent place to start. You can look at people in a certain industry in your geographical area.
3) Decide the best method to reach out to them
If it’s someone you’re already acquainted with, you can simply call them and request some of their time. If you want to reach out to someone perhaps you’ve only met once at a networking event or you were introduced briefly through a friend, you may want to e-mail them.
If it is a complete stranger, you may want to start with a non-traditional method like snail mail. Everyone loves to receive something in the mail and since not that many people actually put a stamp on things and mail them anymore, your letter will stand out. Then you can follow up within 1 week with a phone call. (I’ve actually tried this method before and got 6 out of 10 people to do an informational interview with me.)
You can also use LinkedIn to connect with them initially. Be sure to personalize your invitation to say something like “Hello, I am really impressed with your profile and I would like to have you in my network.” Wait a week or so after they have accepted your invitation to follow up and ask for the informational interview.
4) Explain who you are and what you want from them
This is where the 60 second commercial comes in. Be prepared to sell yourself and let them know who you are. Also let them know what your goal is and how you believe insight from them could help you in your career. What you want is 15 – 20 minutes of their time FACE-TO-FACE. 15 – 20 minutes is all it really takes if you are fully prepared. If you’re calling them on the phone, I would suggest you use a phone script because you may be nervous and this will help you stay on task. You can jot down the key points you want to be sure to convey. Make sure you know your schedule over the next few days so you can easily schedule an appointment with them.
5) Arrive/Leave on time and be prepared with your 10 questions
Treat it like a regular interview and arrive 15 minutes early and dress professionally. Also, leave on time unless the person being interviewed wants to extend it. You will have to pay attention to their body language to see if they are ready to end the meeting. They will most likely let you lead the conversation so have your 10 questions written down. Of course, it is up to you what you want to ask but here are some suggestions:
a. What’s a typical day like in this position? What are your duties?
b. What personal qualities or abilities are important to be successful in this job/industry?
c. What part of the job do you find most satisfying? Most challenging?
d. What training or education is required for this type of work?
e. How do you see jobs in this field changing in the future?
f. What special advice would you give a person entering this field?
g. Which professional journals and organizations would help me learn more about this industry?
6) Show you’ve done your research and FLATTER THEM!!
Be sure to let them know what research you have done on them and the company. Go to the company website and find some key facts about the company. You can also google the company name and see what comes up. LinkedIn is a great place to get information on the person you’re interviewing.
Flatter!! Flatter! Flatter!! Trust me….flattery still works!! Most people are humbled when someone actually takes a genuine interest in them and what they do. This makes them more willing to share information.
7) Have them give you feedback on your resume
Perhaps, the most important thing you should do while you’re in the interview is ask them to look at your resume. Ask what they think of your experience so far and if there are some areas where you need to enhance your qualifications. Having them look at your resume serves dual purposes: a) it lets you know what you need to do to improve it and b) it gets your resume in front of an industry professional and perhaps they will realize you might be a good fit for an opening at their company. Be prepared in case it turns into an actual job interview! (This happened to me for one of my informational interviews. The employer looked at my resume and saw all of my qualifications and had me go to HR on the spot and fill out a job application for one of their current openings. I was called for an interview weeks later.)
8) Get referrals
Before you leave, you MUST get referrals. Everyone knows someone else at their company or in their industry that has just as much knowledge as they do. When you ask for referrals you can say, “Is there anyone else that you know who you think I should talk to to get some insight? When I contact him/her, may I use your name?”
As you leave, give them your business card and get theirs as well. (Don’t have business cards? Check out my blog – “You Don’t Have to Have a Business to Have Business Cards”)
9) Follow up within 24 hours
It is imperative that you send a thank you letter showing appreciation for their time and insight. Mention something specific from the conversation to show what you learned. If they had some suggestions for your resume, make the changes and send the updated version with your thank you letter. Also, end it by saying something like, “Because our meeting was so brief, I was not able to completely share my background with you. I have included my LinkedIn profile/ blog / online portfolio to give you additional information about me.”
10) Do it all over again with the next contact