Why Reinvent the Wheel?  Informational Interviews

In life there are two types of people, the ones who must learn every lesson on their own, and those who can learn from others without firsthand experience.  If you are one of the people from the latter group, you can get where you’re going faster.  When hunting for a job, adding an informational interview into your strategy can help you.  How? By reducing the bumps you experience along the way and helping reduce the overall time it takes to find a job.

What is an Informational Interview?

If you’re not familiar with informational interviews, let me first help define them for you.  Informational interviews are formal conversations you have, typically with people you don’t know very well, who have experience in a field that you do not.  The interview can be done in person or via electronic communication, such as a phone call, video chat or series of emails.  We’ll talk about the best ways to conduct the interviews in a moment.  The goal of the informational interview is to gain insight into something that you would like to accomplish, so that you can minimize mistakes, reduce the time it takes to realize your goal, and not have to circle back to redo things by taking advantage of the experienced professional’s wisdom.

Who Should You Interview?

Informational interviews should be done with people who you respect, that have accomplished or are currently doing something you want to do.  If you want to start a media company, you should consider interviewing someone who has started and maintained a successful media business.  You might also interview someone who has started and failed.  You can learn from people who have both won and lost.

Requesting the Interview Tips

Informational interviews are not casual conversations.  These are semi-formal to formal interviews, where the person being interviewed is doing the interviewer a huge favor.  Make sure before you approach them for the interview, that you know all you can about them.  Check out any published work on the person, read their LinkedIn profile, check out their company website and even talk to a few of their colleagues if you can, to get an idea of who they are, what they have accomplished and how you can best frame your request to interview them.  You will really only have one shot to ask them for the right to interview them, so make sure it’s your best effort.

Where to Conduct the Interview

Face to face meetings are always the best option.  You want to make sure the environment is professional and quiet.  Having distractions like loud music, or kids running around in the background can kill the momentum of any answer. The atmosphere should be more like a conference room than a night club or a cafeteria.  I suggest buying the person food, but not a fast food joint or a coffee shop.  If money is tight and you can’t afford a nice meal, perhaps you can invite them out for a coffee or drinks, but make sure you pick a time of the day that is traditionally slow for those things. 

An office or conference room also works well if you’re not going to buy them food or drinks.  It’s best if you meet in a place where they are comfortable, or a neutral location.  You’ll find most people are more comfortable in an interview scenario when they don’t feel like they’re walking into “enemy” territory.  There are literally no reasons I would invite them to your home or home office for an informational interview.  You can ask them where they would like to meet, however have a few preselected locations already in mind before you ask.

How Long to Conduct the Interview

Keep in mind that the person you are interviewing is doing you a favor and gets nothing out of it.  Be mindful of their time.  You don’t want to use up all their good will in the interview for a few reasons.  If you keep it between 30 minutes to an hour, you can get what you need, as long as you prepare in advance.  Make sure you prepare in advance. 

What Questions to Ask

This can be almost anything, depending on what you are trying to do.  A person looking to become a VP of Engineering would likely need to ask different questions than another who wants to be an Entrepreneur.  You want to ask questions however that help you get from where you are, to where you want to be, with minimal time, effort and mistakes.  The goal is to accelerate your learning curve, and take advantage of their experience.  Let them know what you’re trying to do, ask them for advice on how they would do it if they were starting over, from where you are.  Ask about pitfalls they’ve encountered. 

Regardless of what you ask, by no means should you ever be spit balling the questions that you ask.  You need to have the questions prepared.  In fact, you can even send the questions to the person you are going to interview in advance, so they can be prepared.  You might not even be asking the right questions, but they with experience, can help you.  Sending the questions in advance can also help you with rapport building and they might just consider taking a bigger role in your future, as a mentor.

After the Interview

You would be wise to send them a handwritten thank you note.  You don’t need a fancy present here, but the gesture of a handwritten note will in most cases cement their professional interest in your future.  In many cases you will go into the interview as strangers but come out as more than professional acquaintances.  Why?  Informational Interviews are underutilized in society.  It is still rare to be asked to give one.  People who are asked are often flattered by the request.  When an informational interview is conducted in the right place by an interviewer who is prepared, the person interviewed will likely desire to help them beyond the interview.

Want to earn a referral, gain a mentor or even be offered a job?  Conducting a well though out informational interview can change your life in many ways.  Professionals who see themselves in someone coming up will often go out of their way to help, once they feel a connection has been established.  Even if the interviewed professional doesn’t give you anything but the answers to the questions you asked, you’ll still come out a winner, if you apply the knowledge they shared.

“Look before you leap” became a famous expression for a reason.  Informational interviews help you do just that in the business world.  Incorporate them into your future strategy and get further faster.