Informational interviews: The what, why and how

Informational Interviews

If the job interview is like The Bachelorette's Final Rose Ceremony, think of the informational interview as the limo arrivals (but hopefully not as cringe-worthy).

Informational interviews: They're pretty much the opposite of that Kanye-Taylor phone exchange. And nothing like when Britney was asked about Taylor (and forgot she had met her twice). And they don't even closely resemble this awkward "interview" with Tom Hiddleston… about Taylor Swift.

In short, they have nothing in common with any exchange involving Taylor Swift.

So, what is an informational interview?

While a job interview's primary goal is to – surprise! -- get a job offer, the informational interview is more exploratory. 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 – face to face, in order to gain insight from their career path and experiences. Are you seeking a career change, or reaching a dead end with job applications and hungry for a fresh perspective? Are you just starting out in your career and hoping to either expand your network or narrow down the types of companies or roles you should target? Or, are you feeling lost in your professional path and needing a reset? An informational interview may be what you need to take that next step.

Think of the job interview as The Bachelorette's Final Rose Ceremony -- and the informational interview as the limo arrivals (but hopefully not as cringe-worthy). The end goal is not to elicit a job offer; in fact, it's often frowned upon to treat it as such – but it can often forge a path for job prospects or offers down the road.

Why conduct an informational interview?

  • Learn about the realities of working in a certain field, business, or role from someone who knows it inside and out.
  • Expand your professional network with someone in your target industry who may become resources and mentors for future opportunities.
  • Improve your interview skills, industry knowledge, and confidence, by speaking with people who are already deep in the trenches.
  • Uncover new job opportunities that aren't accessible to you as an outsider, and learn what peers with traits and skills similar to yours have done.
  • Understand what's most important to employers, and apply your new knowledge to create a better resume or make a positive impression during a job interview.

As a job seeker (or someone looking to switch careers), informational interviews can be a really powerful tool in your search, but like any tool, they must be used carefully, strategically and at the right time.

4 steps to set up a successful informational interview:

  • Identify potential contacts. First, identify people who have jobs you find intriguing and inspiring. Be resourceful. Scour the internet, filter through your social networks and read local newspapers and business publications. Tell your family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, former teachers, and classmates about your goals and ask them for names of people with whom they suggest you speak.
  • Reach out appropriately. As you develop your list of potential contacts, reach out to each person with an introductory email or phone call explaining your background, career goals, interests and what you hope to gain from the meeting. Ask to set up a 15-minute chat in a location that is convenient for both of you (a coffee shop is often a good option) -- or schedule a 15-minute phone call. Remember, these meetings should be brief; your interviewee is likely fitting you into an already busy schedule. And yes, do pick up the tab.
  • Define your expectations and goals for the meeting. Because you are the one responsible for setting the meeting agenda, it's important to first determine what you wish to gain from it, and then craft relevant questions before the actual meeting. This exercise will not only help you gain the right knowledge to inform your career direction and job search, but it will also ensure you're respecting the time of the person you're meeting with.
  • Prepare for your interview. How much you take away from an informational interview depends largely on how thoroughly you prepare. Make sure you have researched your interviewee and are familiar with their background and major accomplishments. Next, explore your interview subject's website and portfolio, or that of the company they work with. Pay particular attention to the "About" section, staff biographies and the company's latest press releases to prepare relevant questions. Reviewing company literature such as brochures and annual reports will also provide a treasure trove of helpful data. Finally, set up Google news alerts for both your industry and target companies to ensure you don't miss big developments.

In the words of Kanye himself, "Relationships are more important than punch lines." Whether you're team Kanye or Team Swift – or Team I-Couldn't-Care-Less, relationships can make a big difference when it comes to landing your next job – and informational interviews are a big part of that.

Keep an eye out for Part Two of informational interviewing, where we delve into the before, during, and after do's and don'ts of an informational interview.