Informational Interviews: Stop Wasting Time and Start Finding Value

Landing an informational interview can be a terrific first step to getting a great job. These meetings help you grow your network and show your value to potential employers. You know all that logically, right? But sometimes it can feel like informational interviews fall flat, and you wonder what you’re actually getting out of all the time you’re spending generating and conducting these meetings.

You must be clear about what you want out of this process, and realize the payoff could be months, or even years away. Informational interviews help you get your name, credentials, and personality in front of someone with decision-making authority or connections that would benefit your career. You’re dressing for success, getting interview experience, and possibly finding out about an unposted position. It’s a win-win-win.

But to find real value in these meetings, you must prepare for multiple outcomes, create a plan, and execute. Remember, the time and energy you commit to an informational interview could put you on a company’s short list and will more than likely pay dividends down the road. What you get from this experience comes down to your ability to understand your goals and track your success over time. Let’s look at 3 key ways to start getting value out of all your informational interviews.

Tailor your informational interview prep

Break down what you need to do to realize your career goal and how an informational interview will help you. Ask yourself: What’s the #1 thing I can learn from this connection to help me on my career path?

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You should start by doing your homework, compiling enough background info to sound like a credible candidate. Read up on your interviewee and their company. Find out what their biggest challenge is. You also need to be able to clearly summarize your background, what you offer, and why you wanted to talk to your interviewee (this is where you can hint at the #1 thing you want to learn from them). Write down a few key questions to ask in the meeting.

With your goal in mind, ask focused, specific questions. John Lees, a career strategist and author of The Success Code, suggests you practice “asking great questions and conveying memorable energy.” Take ownership of your meeting by sounding and looking interested and asking smart questions.

I always recommend people ask this question in an informational interview: “What can I do for you?”Asking this question has two benefits: 1.) It brings the interviewer into the conversation, demonstrating that you care about his or her challenges; and 2.) It defines you as a problem-solver, the type of employee every company covets.

Set tangible goals for after your meeting

Decide what results you want to come out of the meeting. While you may be looking for an immediate job, don’t push your interviewee to hand you a formal interview. The main purpose of informational interviewing is to build new connections, and we all know a robust professional network is the best way to land a good job.

Is your contact well-connected in your target industry? You might decide that one of your tangible goals is to secure a new introduction or two from the person you’re meeting. Or perhaps you are looking for information on what companies are hiring in your industry. Or possibly both.

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If you want to get in at the company where your contact currently works, the informational interview is a great place to find out the nitty gritty about working there. You can get frank answers to delicate questions about the company that are not always easy to ask in a formal interview setting.

Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking, says that “you want to hear about the underbelly.” She calls the setting of an informational interview “a safe environment to ask questions.” Clark suggests asking about the worst parts of your interviewer’s job or asking what your connection wished he or she had known before they got into the industry. Or you might ask for ballpark salary figures or other sensitive information. An informational interview is more free-flowing and a comfortable forum for asking tough questions that could net hard-fought answers.

Keep in touch and improve your interview skills

A common mistake people make is failing to keep in touch post-meeting. This is an easy way to lose the value of informational interviews. Remember, the informational interview itself is only the first step in building a new connection. Keep track of your goals and what impressions and contacts came out of each meeting. Then stay in touch with your connections so they remember you!

Lees suggests to quickly send a note of gratitude to your contact, but make it succinct and describe how your connection was helpful. And don’t immediately ask for a favor. Your connection could feel ambushed, especially after only one short meeting with you.

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It’s a good idea to periodically check in with your new connection and the contacts they shared with you. But please be judicious in how often you contact them and in how much you write. You want to be engaged but succinct, helpful and interesting in your followup communication. It’s always a good idea to share a new article or resource that relates to their work!

In addition, review your own performance in each informational interview. Which questions did you ask that resonated with the interviewer, and which ones fell flat? You can usually tell by the person’s body language or length of time they spent answering your question. Based on that, refine your approach for your next informational interview.

Finding value in informational interviews comes down to your ability to understand your goals and track success over time.