Before, During, and After an Informational Interview

We're wrapping up a month-long series on informational interviews. Last week we talked about how to reach out to people to schedule interviews. Now let's talk about the interview itself.

Just as in a job interview, you want this to be a back-and-forth conversation, not just a Q&A session. Remember that you're not a journalist and there's no test at the end; you're doing this to gain information that you find valuable, and to build a relationship with the person you're talking to.

That said, you do need a good set of questions to start out with. I like to write out 5-6 questions with some possible follow-up questions where applicable. Do your research ahead of time; you don't want to be asking questions that you could have found the answers to yourself. You're looking for this person's unique experience and expert opinion. Some good questions might be:

  • I saw that you have X degree and are now doing Y work. What skills from your X program do you find yourself using most in your work?
  • What skills do you wish more people had before starting out in Y field?
  • You worked at [big company] before coming to [non-profit]. What are the main differences you've found? What should I be thinking about when deciding which kind of organization to work for?
  • What do you like most about your work? What has most surprised you?
  • What would you say is the biggest challenge for someone trying to get started in Y field? What suggestions do you have?
  • The job titles I've been looking at are B and C. Do those seem like the appropriate level jobs for someone with my experience? Are there other job titles or keywords I should be looking for?
  • Are there any local organizations for Y field that I should look into?
  • What are some of your favorite publications or sites for staying up-to-date on Y field?

If you're trying to get insights on a particular company, you might ask:

  • What do/did you like about working at Company A? What are some of the challenges?
  • In what ways do you think Company A is different from other companies in Y field?

Let me emphasize one point clearly: You are not asking for a job or asking for help landing a job. If the interview is going well, the person you're talking to will likely volunteer information about open positions they know about (or even better, positions that may be opening up soon) or offer to pass on your resume. But you do not want to put anyone on the spot by asking for favors or recommendations.

One thing you can do to keep the ball rolling is to ask, "Is there anyone else you suggest I talk to [at Company A / in the local Y field]?" If the person you're talking to knows anyone who is currently hiring for the kind of work you're looking for and feels comfortable recommending you, this is the time they will offer to make that introduction.

On the day of the interview, show up to the appointed place about 15 minutes early -- 5 if you're meeting at their office, so they don't feel rushed. If meeting at a coffee shop (my recommendation), I will usually grab a table where I can see the door, wave when I see them come in (between their LinkedIn profile photo and other research you do, you should have a good idea what they look like), introduce myself, and then offer to buy them a drink.

I suggest offering to give some BRIEF background on yourself, a kind of abbreviated version of your Tell Me About Yourself, and explain what you're hoping to gain from the meeting. Even if you are mostly just trying to expand your network and aren't necessarily seeking specific information, you'll want to frame it as "I'd like to get your perspective on how to get better connected to the Y network in Local Area" or "I want to learn from your experience when figuring out the best places to apply."

It's a good idea to bring a notepad -- write your questions at the top and leave space to take notes. Again, you're not being a journalist trying to get quotes, so you really only need to take notes when the person you're interviewing mentions certain organizations, websites, or people who want to remember. Otherwise you should maintain appropriate eye contact, staying focused on what they're saying and asking follow-up questions.

After the interview, send a thank-you e-mail. Like a good thank-you note after a job interview, you'll want to not only thank them for their time, but mention some specific things you talked about. In particular, mention any specific action steps you've taken or will take as a result of their advice. ("I checked out that website you recommended..." "I plan to contact So-and-So to set up a meeting.")

Like any good relationship, you want to nurture it over time and make them glad they invested time in you. This means keeping your contacts updated. If you set up that meeting with So-and-So, follow up again and let them know how it went, thanking them again for the recommendation. If you joined a professional organization they recommended, send them a short note about an event you attended and what you got out of it. If you come across an article about something you discussed during your meeting, send it their way.

That's the basics of an informational interview! By far, the hardest part is getting up the courage to reach out to someone you've never met before. Once you've done that, you can use these tips to make the meeting or phone call as successful as possible.