The Art of Acing the Informational Interview

If you want a job in the company of your dreams without filling out a job application, want to understand the ins and outs of realistically working there, and get first dibs on vacancies opening up in the near future—the ones that never get advertised—you need to schedule an informational interview—today.

According to Matt Youngquist, the president of Career Horizons, at least 70-percent jobs are never posted online, yet most job seekers spend 70-percent of their time filling out online applications. Of course you know—doing something over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

1. What Is An Informational Interview?

Informational interviews are meetings you can set up in person, over the phone, via Skype, FaceTime, or email with the movers and shakers in your industry. All it takes is making a comprehensive list of the companies you imagine working for, figuring out the gurus you’d love to chat up, and requesting 15-minutes of their valuable time through a carefully drafted email request.

Of course, what it really calls for is getting over the fear of the unknown. Whether you’re a recent grad looking for a job or a seasoned professional looking for a career shakeup—active networking is the key to moving up the corporate food chain. Informational interviews can help you meet the people who make hiring decisions, find out what companies are really looking for in potential candidates, and tap the word-of-mouth network in your industry.

2. How Do You Land That Crucial Interview?

The first step’s figuring out the names of at least three people you want to talk to in the company of your choice. For ex. If you’re a journalist like me and in a mood to get a little ambitious, you might want to meet the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. But, chances are the associate editor has more down time to answer your questions.

The next step is figuring out that person’s direct email through a common contact or through online research. You can also use LinkedIn to find your answer, but never send an InMail. You’ll only come across as a spammer and never hear back.

When you sit down to draft your email make sure your tone matches the clothes that people wear at that company. Your subject line should read: ‘request for an informational interview.’ Here’s where you can also mention the name of the person who suggested the hook-up. Your email’s more likely to be read that way.

Next, in simple, straight sentences ask for that person’s help in figuring out what’s it really like working in that industry or specifically for that company. But, get more personal. Use your research to show what in the person’s career path inspired you to reach out. Thank them in the email itself and ask for not more than 15-minutes of their time.

3. Keep Your Expectations Real

After sending out the email, the waiting game begins. If you don’t hear back, sending a follow-up email after a week or two doesn’t hurt. Remaining patiently persistent for a couple of weeks is good strategy. Make one last attempt after a month. Then move on. Just remember—it’s not personal and the more letters you send out the more likely you are to meet someone useful.

If you landed the interview via a friend who’s returning a favor just for the heck of it, the informational may not yield the results you want. That doesn’t mean you don’t show up at the interview on time, and not ask the questions you need to. That also doesn’t mean you don’t show gratitude for the opportunity you got. You should know that someone just stopped his/her work for half an hour to talk to you—a complete stranger.

Also, if the interviewee doesn’t see spunk in you, he/she may want to wrap up the conversation as quickly-as-possible. The reason why people say yes to informational interviews is to be on the look out for fresh college grads, to make last-minute hires, to grow their crop of freelancers, or to benefit from expanding their own network. If you don’t jump off the page for them, they’ll want to get back to doing what’s important for them. And that’s okay.

4. Why You Need To Make It Face-to-face

Talking with a stranger for the first time can be awkward. On top of it, talking to someone you admire can be intimidating. Making sure the conversation happens face-to-face is therefore crucial. It can help you communicate your personality in a more natural way—using your body language to exude confidence and your expressions to convey passion.

If you choose to do a cold call—be prepared for awkward conversation starters, confusing commas, and hasty full stops. Sometimes, however, you can’t get the person you want in-person. If you’re looking for a job in another city or if the person you’re trying to talk to is always on-the-move—use what technology can offer. Make the interview happen on Skype or FaceTime.

Once you do land your interview—don’t come across as desperate. Smiling often, making eye contact with your interviewee, and active listening are all part of your arsenal to make a lasting impression.

5. What You Must Bring Along

Along with a positive, can-do attitude, you must also bring along formal wear, a copy of your resume, and a business card. Treat this informational interview like a real one. Possibilities are it might turn into one if you’re prepared enough.

On the off chance that the interviewee takes unusual interest in you, asking you to do a quick test to demonstrate your skills, or firing questions at you to figure out your educational background—you may be onto a real opportunity. Remain calm, don’t buckle under pressure, and grab the opportunity with both hands.

If you’ve put hours into prepping for this day—reading the company’s recent press releases, going through the latest work that the guy you’re talking to has published, or working on the set of skills that can get you hired in this place—a casual conversation can open many doors.

However, what interviewees hate are questions you could’ve figured out answers to on your own. In order to win brownie points—have ready a general set of questions full of icebreakers and more specific ones tailor-made for this individual—before you enter the room.

Here are some examples of general questions that you can fire-off: What experience, skills, and traits does your company look for in an ideal entry-level candidate? What is the most gratifying thing about your daily job and what is the biggest frustration?

To get into the specifics, you can ask questions like: Why did you choose to transition from advertising to a career in journalism and what were some roadblocks along the way? What is the average length of time most people stay at Time magazine versus GQ where you previously worked?

As, the pace of the conversation picks up—don’t forget that the point of an informational interview is just that—to make the conversation flow. So rattling off questions like bullet-points from a PowerPoint can backfire. Keep your notebook of questions ready, but be present in the moment.

6. What You Must Never Bring Along

Of course—you and the interviewee both know you’re looking to get hired in the company you’re in right now. But, never dare to ask for a job straight away. If for some reason you mentioned that you’re looking for one in the email you sent out—you may never get a reply or be directed to the company’s HR. Wrong move.

An easy way to draw attention to your skills is by asking the interviewee to critique your resume. However, don’t stiffen-up if the criticism is negative. Remember, this is your chance to learn. Also, the more informational interviews you do, the more at ease you’ll feel in a real interview scenario—improving your chances to perform better when you’re sitting face-to-face with a CEO.

You want to also start the conversation on a genuine note of gratitude and interest in this person’s life—than making it all about you. A charming way to start is by talking about something in common. Maybe you’re both from the same fraternity house and graduated from the same school. Or may be both of you own the same breed of dog. These are all good icebreakers.

During the conversation you must pay attention to never over-shoot the 15-minute time limit.  Gently remind the interviewee that you are mindful of their busy schedule. But, stay back if the interviewee tells you he/she has more time.

To keep a tab on time—wear a watch to the interview. Staring at your smartphone is not the smart thing to do. It tells your interviewee—you’re still a millennial who’ll never grow up. Remember one other golden rule: the person you’re talking to can be at liberty to be informal with you. However, you must always keep the tone deferential.

Before you leave the room thank the individual for his/her valuable time and leave a business card behind. Make sure it has your website with an updated portfolio of your works. Also ask your interviewee if he/she can recommend someone else you can talk to about something specific that you’re interested in. For ex. If you are an entry-level journalist, ask to talk to someone who can help hone your skills in social media strategy. If you didn’t get much out of the interview, at least you’ll earn another informational interview.

7. Why The Follow-up Is Crucial

Once the interview is over, wait for 2 days to send a thank you email. Some people also send a thank you card, and sometimes they include links to a book or a research paper that the person you met recommended. In doing so, you’ll be demonstrating that you paid heed to the interviewee’s advice.

If you land a job or a crucial contact through the informational interviews, let the people who helped you out know ASAP. It will make them happy and encourage them to help others in the future. Remember to also add your interviewees on social media, such as twitter and LinkedIn—but never on Facebook. You always want to veer on the formal side of things.

Over the years, keeping in constant touch by informing the person about your recent gigs and keeping yourself abreast with details of his/her career can help you forge a mentor-mentee relationship. Who knows this professional friendship can turn into a business partnership. Or may be one day you could help your mentor out in times of need. After all, there’s no better way to say thank you.

I love dogs, Brooklyn and Ollo-Clips—in that order. When I'm not working I'm usually stuck in a bush trying to take detail shots of thorns, petals and ants. On other days—I binge watch Black-ish or The Magicians, depending on my mood.