So, what exactly is an informational interview? It’s kind of like a job interview, where your pursuit is not a job, but advice. It’s an educational conversation between two people. Typically, someone will pursue an informational interview with someone who has a career that they’d like, works at a company they’d like to work at, or in an industry they are interested in.
Informational interviews are like cheat codes for your career. They’re an inside look at what it takes and what it’s really like to work like that person. How they got to this point, what life looks like in that role, where they are going next – all act as a roadmap to get what you want in your career.
Nothing can match experience. And people are more than happy to share it. While you may think that an executive wouldn’t want to spend an hour talking with just anybody, you’d be surprised. People love to talk about themselves. And it’s actually a new trend in entrepreneurship. Watch enough YouTube videos and soon enough an ad from Tai Lopez or the Laptop Entrepreneurs will pop up offering you a free class in how to be like them. They worked hard to get where they are and they are eager to share what they have learned.
Informational interviews can give you more than just a roadmap. They are a vital source of connections. They’re not just a resource for you, you are a resource for them! In 2015, 75% of workers with new jobs hadn’t actively applied for the position, they were “poached” or referred (FRBSF Economic Research). When you set up an informational interview, you learn about them and they learn about you. They can act as a referral or they can connect you with opportunity within their own company.
But you have to ask them in the right way. Here are a few tips to secure an informational interview and make the most of it:
Think of anyone you admire and reach out to them. Start by looking to your initial network – maybe it’s someone in your professional network or a friend of a friend. You can also reach out to total strangers. Social media has eliminated traditional social boundaries and has increased accessibility. Networks like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to search by name and organization, making a once random process streamlined. LinkedIn can be your ultimate tool, giving you access to their entire career timeline. Search for potential contacts based on everything from their alma mater, to company they work for, or positions they hold.
Don’t be afraid to dig…
Once you’ve picked someone, do your research – just don’t stop at LinkedIn. When researching someone for an informational interview, follow the Google rabbit hole to find everything you can. A knowledge of the articles they’ve written, organizations they’ve volunteered for, or events they’ve spoken at can help you really stand out when asking to set up an interview.
How you reach out to a contact will depend on how you know them. If you share a mutual connection, that connection will get you in contact with them. If they are strangers, LinkedIn might be your best approach. However, with the right Google technique, you can likely access their email. If it’s not listed on the company website, you can try common iterations of emails. For example, if someone is named Mickey Mouse, these can include:
Infiltrating a space like email, especially unexpectedly, requires a respectful approach. The research you did earlier can help this feel like less of an ambush. Here is an example of an email approach:
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 Alice in Wonderland contrasts so 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 position 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 so appreciated.
Starting with a compliment and following it up with evidence to support that you know who they are, is flattering and demonstrates your intent and investment. Doing your research can go really far. Throw in commonalities, like companies you’ve worked for, schools you went to, or events you attended – anything that can strengthen the connection. We like people who are like us.
Be gracious and humble, and most importantly, patient. Their schedule may be packed, so be patient in scheduling and accommodate their schedule. Not everyone will be able to meet you in person, or they may schedule a call for 5 AM. Take every opportunity.
When you do schedule an appointment with your contact, research and have your questions ready. Remember, this isn’t a job interview, it’s not so much about selling yourself. It’s about learning from them.
Physically write down your questions so you can keep the conversation on track and more effectively utilize their time. 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? (ie characteristics, connections, education, etc)
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 on this topic?
Are there any questions I should have asked you, but didn’t?
Then write down their answers so you can reference them in the future. Also, be prepared to answer questions about what it is you’re looking for. This is your chance to talk about your own career goals.
The dreaded elevator pitch
While this conversation is about them and not you, they will want to know who you are and what you want. This is where your elevator pitch comes in.
If you are unfamiliar with the elevator pitch, it’s a succinct and concise introduction, intended to capture your audience in the time it takes to ride in an elevator. In so many words, you have less than 30 seconds to introduce yourself and establish your value, making your audience want to continue the conversation.
This is where you sell yourself. These can feel dreadful, but they shouldn’t! You have a lot to offer, but you must be prepared. When they ask, “So what do you do?” Be ready.
Your pitch will capture their attention and make them say, “Interesting. Tell me more.”
To craft your pitch, start with a paper and pen. List 5-10 of the accomplishments or traits you’re most proud of, emphasizing what you can do for your audience. They should answer these questions: Who are you? What do you do? How much or how many (quantitative points support your statements)? What are you looking for?
Then continue to shave them down into a more concise conversation. It should be very natural, yet professional. It should feel like an average conversation:
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. My most recent assignment, I came in as an administrative assistant where I coordinated a 3-day gathering of the organization’s top leaders from across 10 states, on top of my basic duties. Now I’m hoping to expand my work into a permanent role in the HR space, helping to build culture and maintain compliance.
In the pitch above, the speaker drew their audience in with a hook, provided quantitative support for their top accomplishments, and concluded with what they are looking for next. It’s quick, succinct, and natural.
Continuously update and practice your pitch so you are always ready, in and out of informational interviews.
Once you deliver your pitch, it will be up to your contact to respond. Hopefully, they will offer to aid in your next step.
After your meeting has ended, always always always send a thank you card. Send a real, handwritten card thanking them for their time. When they feel appreciated, they are more likely to help out even more in the future.
If they connected you with others in their network, promptly follow-up with your next informational interviews. Don’t allow too much time to pass.
Be Fearless & Act Accordingly
Do not feel daunted, reach out to who you really want to learn from. Some may be harder to get in contact with than others, but do not underestimate who will be willing to spend a moment with you.
This includes being persistent in contact and scheduling. If they say they are too busy, check in with them monthly and regularly. If they decline, politely thank them and move on to the next person on your list.
Once you have that advice, put it in action! Take their tips to heart and immediately act them out.
Two very different and very successful people know the value asking: business magnate and billionaire, Warren Buffet, and Canadian DJ & Journalist, Nardwuar. 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. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Warren Buffet said, “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 hold advice and insight you cannot get anywhere else. If you want to interview the most famous and influential, or become a billionaire, the solution lies within the ask. You can get the roadmap to the career – and life – you want.