When I completed my first internship with the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis, I was tasked with completing informational interviews. I had never heard of the concept before and as an introvert, I was honestly terrified with the idea of reaching out to people I didn’t know (Disclaimer: I ended up reaching out to people I did know, and there’s nothing wrong with that). At the time I didn’t fully understand the value of informational interviews, but looking back, they were such valuable experiences for me and I’m thankful I was introduced to them so early on in my career. While all majors can benefit from informational interviews, these are especially helpful for anyone exploring careers within communication since there are so many different opportunities this major provides.
Whether this is your first time being introduced to informational interviews, or whether you’re just looking to brush up on your skills, the handy guide I’ve provided below will help you navigating everything you need to know about the world of informational interviews. Plus, I’ve provided a free organizational template at the end of this post to help you follow through with all of the steps listed below:
UNDERSTANDING THE PURPOSE OF INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS
According to Career Builder, “The purpose of an informational interview is to talk to professionals in your industry – or in an industry you’d like to find out more about – …in order to gain insight from their career path and experiences.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!
As a side note, while some people would argue that an informational interview can be turned into a job interview, I would not advise having that as an ulterior motive. You’re conducting informational interviews to help build your understanding of different career paths, job roles, duties, industries and so on. If you make this connection, act professionally and foster these relationships in the future, then your name will be in their head if a job opportunity pops up.
IDENTIFYING GOALS YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE FROM EACH INTERVIEW
Are you wanting to learn more about a specific job position? Are you interested in learning the differences between an agency setting as opposed to a corporate environment? Are you trying to figure out what experiences might be most helpful for certain career paths? Are you wondering how helpful certain college extracurricular activities actually are in the workforce? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself in order to figure out your goals in conducting an informational interview. Figure out what you want to learn from the experience, and that will help you next identify the people who are most likely to have that type of information available to share with you.
IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL CONTACTS AND RESEARCHING THEM
After identifying the goals you want to achieve, it’s time to do your research on potential folks worth interviewing. Use the goals you identified earlier to focus and narrow your search criteria. Stay organized by incorporating the following aspects in your research:
- Use relevant search tools
Personally, I’ve always found LinkedIn to be one of the best resources since you can easily type in job titles. If you have certain companies in mind, it’s also helpful to go straight to their website and see if a team profile is listed with contact information. Smaller organizations are more likely to have these types of sections online.
- Don’t restrict yourself with face-to-face meetings
While face-to-face meetings are definitely ideal, geographic locations shouldn’t necessarily limit your options. Virtual interviews are possible and are actually a skill worth learning about within the ever-evolving communication industry. One of my previous internships was completely virtual via Google Hangouts, from my initial interview to team meetings and even final presentations.
- Be realistic with your selections
A CEO will likely ignore your message, whereas a mid-level marketing strategist may be a lot more open to chatting. You can’t assume that every person you reach out to will agree to chat with you, but it is safe to assume that some employees are a lot more realistic options than others.
- Utilize your current connections
If you personally know someone in the industry worth interviewing, definitely reach out to them! This personal connection can also help you calm your nerves before reaching out to someone you don’t know. Remember, however, to still stay professional even when interviewing someone you know on a personal level and don’t take their time for granted. Other people worth reaching out to could also include your communication professors or graduates of your school with the same major as you. A shared contact on LinkedIn could also be a common connection worth emphasizing.
REQUESTING AN INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW
So you understand the purpose of informational meetings, you’ve identified your goals in conducting them and you’ve researched and identified who you’d like to interview – now it’s time to make them happen!
- How many people should I reach out to? How should I reach out to them and what should I say?
I would aim to reach out to at least two people initially, since you can’t assume everyone will respond, yet if they both respond that’s still a manageable amount of interviews to conduct. I prefer email as a point of contact. Keep things short and get straight to the point, explaining your purpose of wanting to speak with them, mutual connections if relevant, your interest in their work, some time frames you are available and how you would like to conduct the meeting (face-to-face or virtual meeting, for instance). Remember, you are only seeking to spend a short period of time with them, not take up their entire day! You can view some email templates requesting an informational interview in this article from Eric Shannon and additional brainstorming ideas for writing a request in this article from Liza Shoenfeld.If you’re asking via email, I would recommend also setting up an appropriate email signature with relevant information about yourself. This is a non-pushy way of sharing your professional information without being obnoxious about it. Be sure to include your name, school and major, and your LinkedIn profile at the bare minimum and use in-text links to keep it clean. Canva has some great advice on incorporating design into your email signature too, if you need some inspiration. For reference, here’s an example of a simple email signature I’ve used before:If your contact responds and is willing to chat, thank them and finalize the details promptly. I would also recommend sending a follow-up reminder email the day before.
- What if my contact never responds, or doesn’t want to chat with me?
If a contact does not respond, I would wait at least one week before either sending a follow-up email or calling the office directly. You do not want to come across as bothersome, but there is always a chance that a busy professional simply forgot to respond! However, if you follow up and still do not receive a response, shake it off and move on to another contact. If someone simply is not interested in chatting, then thank them for their time regardless, and just move on to another contact.
You called for the meeting, so don’t show up expecting to just wing it. You need to have questions prepared ahead of time. One of the biggest things to keep in mind is avoiding generic questions that you could have figured out with a quick internet search. Anything that is listed on a LinkedIn profile, company site and so forth is public knowledge that you should have already spent time reading through when identifying people to interview.
If you’re drawing a blank on what kind of questions you should be asking, check out these suggestions from Susan Adams at Forbes, or Sarah Landrum’s recent post on Punched Clocks for inspiration. Personally, I love that Landrum recommends asking what an average work day entails, because not every job title necessarily shares the same duties across various companies. If you want to be a PR Specialist, there’s likely a big difference between this role at a large company with an actual PR department, as opposed to a small non profit organization relying on a handful of communication-oriented employees.
- What if they start talking about stuff I wasn’t planning on asking about?
As a friendly reminder, sometimes when you meet with someone the conversation may end up going in a different direction than you planned – and that’s perfectly fine! Some folks are chattier than others and may end up sharing information you never even thought of asking about, and it’s important to keep the conversation flowing naturally. Never come into an informational interview expecting to ask all of your questions, receive concise responses and then leave. There’s a difference between coming across as a prepared, aspiring professional and coming across as a robotic, question-asking person with no personality.
- How much should I talk about myself?
Personally, I don’t try to sell myself as a potential employee during informational interviews because I truly want to learn about someone else’s experiences. My focus is on the person who has taken the time to meet with me and share their advice and professional thoughts. However, if they do ask about my goals, future plans and so forth, I would definitely share that information with them appropriately! While I would never just hand someone my resume in this scenario, I would be sure to pass along a link to my portfolio if they had truly expressed an interest in checking it out.
THE INTERVIEW IS HERE – ANY TIPS?
For starters, be on time! Whether you’re meeting in person, chatting virtually or speaking on the phone, don’t be late. It’s unprofessional and they’re doing you a favor, so don’t take their time for granted. If you’re meeting in person or chatting virtually, plan on dressing business casual. You’re conducting yourself as a professional, not a college student that just rolled out of bed. Be sure to also bring a clean, professional folder with your questions and paper to take notes on if necessary. If you have a business card, I would also bring a copy of that along. Personally, I have never brought my resume to an informational interview although some people argue in favor of bringing one along, so it couldn’t hurt to keep a copy with you just in case they ask for it specifically. Basically, conduct yourself the way you would in a job interview – except remember that you’re here to learn about them, not to sell yourself for a specific position.
SAYING THANK YOU
This is one of the easiest tasks to do, yet so many young professionals fail to follow through with this common courtesy. If someone took the time out of their busy day to help you prepare for your future career, you absolutely need to take the time out of your day to thank them! I always send handmade cards because I love any excuse to get crafty, but a store bought one works just as well too. Be sure to mention some specific advice they gave you when thanking them so that they know their time truly was valuable to you. Personally, I would recommend sending a brief email thank you that same day and then an actual card within the next few days. If you’re in a social media industry, it also may be worthwhile to share a piece of advice you learned from them along with a thank you and tag them in it on a social media platform.
CONNECTING WITH CONTACTS AFTER THE INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW IS OVER
One of the primary purposes of informational interviews, outside of career exploration and development, is how useful this stuff is for networking. Whenever you conduct an informational interview with someone, always connect with them on LinkedIn! You can also connect them with on social media platforms, but I would prioritize LinkedIn above all else due to its professional nature. This will keep them aware of your latest professional updates, keep you updated on their career and also potentially link you to other professionals through them.
WELL, I’M READY…BUT I SURE WISH I HAD AN ORGANIZATIONAL TOOL TO HELP ME!
No worries, I’ve got you covered – click here to download my free organizational template for informational interviews via Microsoft Excel to make sure you stay on track with everything I’ve mentioned in this guide to informational interviews. This organizational tool has three separate sections for your contact research, email templates and a checklist to make sure you’re not missing any key steps along the way. I’ve also filled out each sheet with example information to use for inspiration. Best of luck!