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Informational interviews – what is it and how do I get one?

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So, what exactly is an informational interview? Imagine a job interview where, instead of pursuing a job, you’re just seeking career advice.

You can request an informational interview when you want to know more about someone’s job, company, or industry. It’ll give you a chance to pick someone’s brain for career advice, providing you insight into what it takes to reach your goals.

Informational interviews are also a great way to network. In 2015, 75% of workers with new jobs hadn’t actively applied for the position. They were “poached” or referred (FRBSF Economic Research). If you make a strong connection with your interviewee, they might refer you for a position or introduce you to other professionals in your field.

Who should you interview?

Short of asking Oprah or JK Rowling, your options are limitless. People love to talk about themselves, and being asked for an informational interview can be a flattering experience.

Start by looking at your immediate network. Is there someone you know who could help you advance in your career? Consider friends of friends, coworkers of family members, or even successful alumni that went to your same high school or college.

You can also reach out to total strangers. Not every outreach will return a successful connection, but when it does work, it can be an incredible career boost!

Social media has blurred traditional boundaries and greatly increased accessibility. Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to search by name and organization, streamlining what used to be a harder process.

LinkedIn is your ultimate professional research tool, giving you access to entire career timelines. Search for potential contacts based on alma mater, company, or position. Once you’ve found someone, don’t stop at LinkedIn. Search across the web for articles they’ve written, organizations where they volunteer, or events where they’ve spoken. Having this knowledge can help you approach them successfully.

Asking for an Interview

How you reach out to a contact depends on how well you know them. If you share a mutual connection, that connection can make the introduction. This makes it less awkward and gives you a higher chance of success.

If you’re reaching out to a stranger, try using LinkedIn or email. Reaching out online requires a respectful approach. This is where your research comes in handy. Here is an example of an email approach:

Hello Mickey,

My name is Super Ambassador and I have been working in cartoons for 5 years now. I have been following your career on LinkedIn and I am in awe. Your career seems to be the perfect combination of science and art. Your work in Fantasia contrasts beautifully with your work in Steamboat Willie, while your article on your new Star Wars campus in Anaheim had such an in-depth analysis of qualitative data that could truly change Southern California tourism. Inspiring.

I’d love to learn more about your career journey and your role within the Disney organization. With so much happening, I imagine you are busy. A 15-minute phone call, or even a quick cup of coffee, would be deeply appreciated.

Thank you,
Super Ambassador

Start with a compliment and follow up by showing you know who they are. This is flattering and demonstrates your genuine interest. Doing your research can go really far. Throw in commonalities such as companies you’ve both worked for, schools you went to, or events you attended.

Be gracious, humble, and – most importantly – patient. Their schedule may be packed, so flexibility is key. One person might suggest getting coffee early in the morning, while someone else suggests a phone call in the evening. Take every opportunity.

Prepare, prepare, prepare!

Remember that this isn’t a job interview. It’s not about selling yourself, but about learning from them.

Think of what questions you’ll benefit most from. Write these down. Here are a few examples of questions you might ask:

  • How did you get into the field?
  • What do you think made you so successful?
  • What do you see happening in this field over the next few years?
  • How would you describe the culture at your organization?
  • What advice would you have for someone starting out in this field?
  • What are some next steps I should take if I want to enter the field?
  • Is there anyone else you recommend I talk to?
  • Are there any questions I should have asked you, but didn’t?

The Dreaded Elevator Pitch

While most of the conversation will be about them, not you, chances are eventually the interviewee will ask you about your accomplishments and goals. This is where your elevator pitch comes in.

An elevator pitch is a sales tactic where you capture your audience’s interest in the time it takes to ride an elevator. In other words, you have 30 seconds or less to make an impression.

It doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking! Just come prepared with a brief statement that’s succinct yet impactful.

One trick for crafting your pitch is to answer the following questions:

  • Who you are?
  • What do you do?
  • Quantitative proof of your accomplishments
  • What are you looking for?

Shave down your answers to make the statement as concise as possible. The final result should feel conversational, yet professional.

I’m Super Ambassador, and I am the world’s greatest temporary employee. Most people don’t brag about that, but in the past year, I’ve rescued 7 businesses when talent got short. In my most recent assignment, I came in as an administrative assistant where I coordinated a 3-day gathering of the organization’s top leaders, on top of my basic duties. Now I’m hoping to expand my work into a permanent role in the HR space.

Follow-Up

After your meeting, always always always send a thank you card. Send a real handwritten note thanking them for their time. If they feel appreciated, it’s more likely that they will help you in the future.

If they connect you with others in their network, promptly follow up. Set up more informational interviews without allowing too much time to pass.

The Value of Asking

Canadian DJ and journalist Nardwuar has interviewed everyone from Kurt Cobain to major political figures. In his TED talk, he insists the reason he got those interviews was because he asked for them. That’s it.

On the other end of the spectrum, Warren Buffet is also an advocate for the value of asking. He has been quoted as saying, “You can really learn a lot just by asking—that sounds like a Yogi Berra quote or something—but it is literally true.”

Informational interviews provide you with advice and insight you cannot get anywhere else. They’re like a cheat sheet for your career. But you’ll never get this valuable insight if you don’t ask.

So, go out.
Be fearless.
Just ask.