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8 Steps to Effective Informational Interviews

By Lindsey Pollak

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I give to young professionals is to seek out successful people and ask to conduct an informational interview with them. Essentially, an informational interview is a networking meeting where the interviewee (the successful professional) agrees to share some career advice with the interviewer (you).

I conducted tons of informational interviews when I was a student and young alum, and now I’m often the one being interviewed. And here’s the thing: If someone impresses me, I’ll go out of my way to help that person find a job or connect them with other people I know. If that person doesn’t seem to take the informational interview seriously, I usually end the call early and rarely keep in touch.

If you want to be in the former group with the people you ask for informational interviews, here are some secrets to success:

  1. Confirm. At least 24 hours in advance of your scheduled phone call or meeting, confirm with your interviewee. This shows that you respect the person’s time and that you are taking this opportunity seriously.
     
  2. Be on time. This is just as important for a phone call as it is for an in-person meeting. If you have agreed to 2pm, call at 2:00pm on the nose. Again, it’s a matter of respecting the other person’s time.
     
  3. Do your research. It’s really irritating when someone asks to speak with me and then his or her first question is, “Can you tell me about what you do?” A simple Google search will lead you to my (or anyone’s) LinkedIn profile, Twitter feed, website and all of the articles and blog posts I’ve written. This opening question isn’t a smart use of the time you have to gain valuable career advice.
     
  4. Clearly and concisely explain your situation. In most cases, the person you are interviewing won’t know much about you (don’t assume that he or she has read your resume or any other information, even if you’ve sent it in advance). So it’s a great idea to start the call with a brief (one- to two-minute) introduction to who you are and what you’re looking for. For instance, “I’ve just graduated with a BA in computer science and I’ve completed a few internships at big companies. My goal is to find a job at a start-up in the Boston area where I can work in product development.”

    If you’re not totally sure what you want to do, it’s fine to say that you’re not sure yet, but do give the person some indication of the fields you’re interested in. For example, “I’ve just graduated with a degree in communications and, although I’m not completely sure yet what career to pursue, I’m currently looking at positions in public relations and marketing and would be open to other opportunities as well.”
     
  5. Prepare questions in advance. I recently spoke to a student who had prepared about 5 questions to ask me in a 30-minute phone call, which struck me as the perfect number. She clearly had specific issues she wanted to discuss and I really respected the fact that she had prepared so thoroughly. Her questions were also a good mix of specific (regarding a particular interview she had coming up) and general (she asked me what books I was currently reading and would recommend to a recent grad).
     
  6. Show that you’re listening. Remember that you are the interviewer in this situation, so it’s important to be a great listener. You want your interviewee to do most of the talking so you can gain as much wisdom as possible. This means repeating back some of the highlights of your interviewee’s advice and jotting down some action steps that you can share with the interviewee at the end of your call. For instance, perhaps the interviewee recommended a book to read or a particular company to research.

    Sharing action steps is also a fantastic way to set up the expectation of a follow-up conversation. Tell the interviewee that you will be in touch as you accomplish the tasks he or she has suggested.
     
  7. Send a thank you email within 12 to 24 hours. Just like a formal job interview, an informational interview— even a very quick or casual one—requires a thank you email. The sooner you send one, the better to stay on that person’s radar screen and show that you appreciated his or her time. A handwritten note is a nice gesture, too, but given the speed of the world today, I generally prefer email thank yous following an informational interview.
     
  8. Keep in touch. If someone has agreed to an informational interview, that person now has an investment in your success and wants to hear how you’re doing as your job search continues. While you don’t want to overdo it, it’s absolutely appropriate to follow up with this person in a few ways:
    1. As mentioned, let the person know that you have taken action on his or her suggestions.
    2. Connect on LinkedIn with a personalized connection request that can serve as another thank you note (for example, “Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me last week. I look forward to keeping you posted on my job search!”).
    3. Be sure to inform this person when you eventually land a job. Everyone wants to feel that they contributed in some way to your success.

Do you have any other informational interviewing tips or best practices? Please share!