5 Steps to a Successful (And Not So Awkward) Informational Interview

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An article by contributor Michelle Riklan.

Many applicants experience only the interviewee side of the job application process. They apply for a job, come to the interview, and answer some questions about their work and qualifications. They don’t experience what it’s like to be the one asking questions.

If you haven’t interviewed anyone before, an informational interview can quickly go awkward. Still, information is power, so gritting your teeth and going to an informational interview will help you learn about the job or company you’re targeting, in a way no online research or job fair can teach you.

Once you convince someone to grant you an informational interview, the next step is to prepare for the meeting. Don’t pressure yourself, just follow these tips to make the most out of the meeting.

Make the Most out of an Informational Interview

1. Get Clear on What You Want to Learn

What kind of questions do you want to ask your contact?

Are you interested in the qualifications they look for in your target role, or the company’s culture? Do you want to know about the company’s compensation package and other benefits like a 401(K) plan or vacation leaves? Maybe you’re more interested in the skills and experience they look for in entry level candidates?

Having a list of questions or at least a general idea of the things you want to discuss will make your meeting more productive.

List your questions on a paper and bring it with you during the interview, so you can write your notes and follow-up questions on it as well. Using a laptop or cellphone might be quicker, but it might make your contact feel that you’re distracted. Whatever option you go with, just make sure you make eye contact from time to time.

2. Don’t Ask Obvious Questions

Informational interviews rarely exceed 30 minutes, so don’t waste your contact’s time with easy questions that could be answered with a quick Google search.

You also don’t want to give the impression that you’re lazy and they need to spoon feed you information.

Impress interviewees by asking questions about the job and company, that can’t be found online, such as:

  • Why is this job vacant?
  • What are ‘extra skills’ that aren’t necessary but still considered nice to have or impressive for this job? Customer service, for instance, isn’t required for Data Analytic jobs, but good customer service skills means that you can also be trusted to communicate with clients and upper management.

It also helps if you research information about the person you’re interviewing, so you can ask insightful questions about their career, which will also help you during your job application:

  • What are the common challenges in your job?
  • What does your typical day look like?

3. Start Easy

You’re not interrogating someone for a crime.

Shake hands, get your interviewee a nice cold drink, and get acquainted. Let your contact warm up by asking easy questions first.  The best way to do this is to ask about their experience.

Example warm up questions:

  • How did you get your current job at Company A?
  • Can you tell me about the projects you’re working on?
  • What skills or qualifications would you look for in a colleague?
  • If you can undo something in your career, what would it be?

You should also go with the flow with the questions you ask. You’re building a relationship here, so don’t alienate your contact, or make them feel dismissed by asking zigzag questions that don’t build off one another.

The only thing your questions have in common is that they’re all about career advice, so it’s obvious you want a job in their field. Don’t turn off your contact by asking for a job or a referral though. Let them make that move.

4. Prepare to Answer Questions About Yourself

Like regular job interviews, an informational interview is also a two-way conversation where your contact will ask questions about you.

Don’t be surprised if your interviewee asks about your current job, what you’re looking for now, and your reasons for moving. Prepare a short answer to each of this question that doesn’t involve bashing your current employer.

An informational interview isn’t just to get information, it’s also a way to make connections and build a good impression on a new contact. Bring an updated resume, but don’t give it to your contact unless they request it.

5. Respect their Time

You’re getting lots of good information about your target job, but every good thing has to end sometime. That includes information interviews.

Wear a watch, and be mindful of the start and end time of the interview. If you requested 30 minutes of their time, make sure the interview ends in exactly 30 minutes.

To gracefully end an informational interview, say that you want to be ‘mindful of their time’ about 10 minutes before your meeting ends. This way, you are putting the ball in the interviewee’s court. They can either extend the interview—if they have time to spare—or they can quickly wrap it up.

Whatever happens after that, your interviewee will appreciate you for respecting his time.

Follow Up

Of course, you should use the advice and information your contact gave you. But don’t just leave it at that. Let them know if you used any of the information they gave you, and the results you gained.

People love knowing that they made an impact on someone’s career, especially if they spent 15 to 30 minutes of their time on you. This is a basic step in networking.

Your contact invested time in your career, so it’s only appropriate that you thank them and acknowledge how their advice furthered your job search. It’s easy to do this, just send them an email to explain what happened, or connect with them on LinkedIn and send them a message.

Michelle Riklan is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and the Chief Career Marketing Strategist at Riklan Resources LLC. Before helping others with their careers, Michelle gained extensive HR leadership experience in Fortune 500 companies. Aside from individuals, she also helps small businesses and large corporations in different aspects of HR and Career Management. Follow her on Twitter at @ResumeWoman.

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