“Instead of better glasses, your network gives you better eyes.” — Ronald Burt
I truly believe in the power of networking to find opportunities, acquire knowledge, and have a better vision for my career. In particular, informational interviews are an important form of business networking that should be part of every professional’s long-term strategy.
One thing I should note here is that I’m writing from the perspective of a professional in North America. If you’re located in other parts of the world, you may not have even heard about informational interviews. Let me know in the comments section if this practice is common or similar in your country.
What is an Informational Interview?
An informational interview is an informal conversation with another professional who is currently working in an area or company that interests you, has studied in a field you’re exploring, or could be a potential business partner or mentor to you in the future.
During an informational interview, you will gain relevant, first-hand information that is rarely available online. It will help you build a two-way, genuine connection and should be thought as a first step to a long-term professional relationship.
Throughout the years, I’ve held informational interviews with many interesting people. As a result, I was introduced to job opportunities, side gigs, and people beyond my profession and industry. I successfully made a number of friendships as well; that’s why I find a lot of value in these meetings.
Virtual Informational Interviews
Before COVID-19 struck, information interviews were conducted in person as a coffee chat or lunchtime meeting in 20–30 minutes. But after we started physical distancing, there is no other choice than doing them virtually, by phone or video.
Are people really open to meeting virtually?
Since the restrictions started in mid-March 2020, I’ve arranged five information interviews with new contacts on LinkedIn. If I count the meetings where I was interviewed by others, the total is about 12 meetings (as of May 22.) So yes, people are open to meeting virtually if calendars align and there is a mutual interest. The key is to find the right people and conduct the meeting effectively.
Set your own goals first
In an informational interview, you can learn multiple things such as:
- Insider knowledge about working in a certain company
- Current information about an industry
- Tips on how to prepare for an interview at the company of your dreams
- Career paths or studies required to work in a field that interests you
- Information about jobs before they are posted online
It’s fundamental to define your own goals and identify your desired outcomes for the informational interview. In my previous article about practical tips for your job search, I suggested researching industries and companies and setting your goals as part of the process of job hunting. You can use these tips to narrow down what you’re looking for before starting to contact people.
Who should I contact?
If you’re completely new to informational interviews, it’s normal to feel a little awkward. You could start by practicing with people you already know: acquaintances, neighbours, ex-coworkers, mentors, and other people you’ve met in real life.
The second approach is to get introduced. You could ask anyone you trust to introduce you to someone in their network. Give them specifics on what types of professionals you want to meet.
Those who are more comfortable reaching out to strangers could use these other methods:
- Tap into your college or university’s alumni networks. Usually there is an institutional page with an alumni directory. Many North American institutions use the Ten Thousand Coffees platform to introduce members via email.
- Attend virtual events. Most professional associations and some private companies are currently holding virtual events, job fairs, and webinars. You can interact with speakers and other attendees during the event and connect later on LinkedIn or through email to continue the conversation.
- Be active on social media. While LinkedIn is the go-to site for professional networking, you can also interact with interesting people on Twitter and in job search groups on Facebook. Check who is sharing good content and reach out to them.
- Use networking apps. The most well-known networking app is Shapr which resembles a dating app because you swipe right and left. But I did meet professionals with great careers by swiping right! Recently I learned about another app called Invitly that I haven’t tried yet.
- Find members of immigrant networks. If you’re an immigrant in Ontario, Canada, you can find different groups that help professionals in the TRIEC PINs Directory. Some of these groups have national and international reach.
What to say in the first message
Once you have been introduced, or have identified someone whom you’d like to discuss, send them a message explaining who you are, why you are contacting them, and what you hope to learn.
To increase the chances of getting a response, you could mention something in common with the person, compliment them, and be clear about what you’re looking for.
Ask if they are available for a brief (15–20 minute) conversation over the phone or through video call, and give them a few options of times and dates. This article by Regina Borsellino on The Muse has great email templates appropriate for our COVID-19 times.
If you’re reaching out on LinkedIn without being introduced by a common contact, it’s better not to ask for a meeting in your very first message. The LinkedIn etiquette is to exchange a few initial messages so that the person gets to know you, then perhaps engage through comments on the person’s posts, and finally ask whether they’re open for a live chat.
Some people will not want to meet you
Sorry, that’s the reality! Don’t feel bad or lose confidence if someone ignores your messages. You never know what could be going on in another person’s life.
If the person is currently working from home, they might be dealing with an increased workload. They may be juggling their work schedules to be a home school teacher, a caregiver, etc., or they need to make personal calls in the little free time they have.
Some people are inundated with requests and may take longer to respond. Others may not want to connect with people they don’t know or whom they haven’t been introduced by a trusted contact. It’s a matter of personal comfort and choice, but also keep in mind that these days people are stressed, distracted, tired, and everything in between.
One of my contacts said that when he reaches out to 10 people on LinkedIn, only one or two will respond. In my personal experience, it’s about five or six in 10. It depends on how you approach them as well as their situation — there is no rule or ‘one size fits all’ for this.
Should I follow up on the first message?
It’s a good idea to gently follow up with your intended prospect if you haven’t heard back after a few days of the first message. Then again after a couple of weeks. But if you don’t hear back after three messages, it’s better to move on without taking things personally.
What you have to realize is that, we generally expect people to operate on our schedule when, in reality, that very rarely happens. We are living in an exceptionally difficult time and need extra patience to get a reply. All the reasons mentioned above are outside of our control.
Preparing for the meeting
Once the person you want to interview has accepted to meet virtually, it’s critical to prepare well and show professionalism by doing the following.
Before the meeting
- Send them a calendar invitation by email
- If you agreed to a phone call, make sure you have good reception
- If you’re meeting on video, make sure your Internet connection is good, and the video conferencing software works well
- Check your room lighting to ensure that your face and eyes can be seen clearly
- Confirm the day before with a short message such as, “I look forward to our conversation”
- Review the person’s background and prepare 10–15 questions you would like to ask them at the meeting
- Rehearse saying the purpose of the call and your “elevator pitch” so that you sound natural and friendly
The day of the meeting
- Be in a quiet room. Turn off any distractions including notifications
- For a video call, dress professionally — applicable to your upper body that can be seen!
- Log in 3–5 minutes before, so that you’re the first one in the call
- Mute yourself when not speaking
- Listen well and do not try to fill the gaps
- Take notes of the main points.
Typical questions you can ask
These questions can be asked during in-person as well as virtual meetings, and are meant to give you a starting point.
- Career paths: What advice do you have for someone who is just getting started in this field (in this country)? What have been some surprises throughout your career that got you to where you are today? Have you considered other specializations? How do you see this profession evolving?
- Professional development: What courses have you taken to continue with your development? What technical skills & knowledge have been the most useful? What credentials are most in demand? What professional associations or groups are you part of?
- Industry: What are, in your opinion, the most important trends in this industry? How is your company positioned in the industry?
- Organizational culture: What can you tell me about the culture of your company and/or department? What inspires you about your company or its leadership?
- Selection process: How did you get into this company? Are more candidates referred internally rather than external hires? What advice can you give me about the application process (e.g. should I attach a cover letter)?
- Career advancement: Do people in your company move to another organization to progress their careers, or do they find chances to move up internally? Is your company providing any type of training?
- Day-to-day responsibilities: How’s a typical day at work for you? What parts of your work do you find most rewarding? What are the most challenging problems you have to deal with?
- Staying in touch: Is it okay if I send you messages from time to time? How can I help you? What interests you? (You can use their answers to understand their preferences. If they’re interested in specific information, you can send them articles later to stay in touch.)
- Other potential contacts: Would you be able to introduce me to one or two other contacts in the profession?
Based on your goals and the research you did about the person and/or organization, come up with your own set of questions before the meeting.
Do’s and Don’ts of Informational Interviews
- DO remain professional and courteous at all times. The business culture in North America tends to be quite casual compared to other parts of the world. Nevertheless, always be aware of your demeanour and expressions. Look at the camera if you’re on video, smile, and demonstrate interest in the person’s stories.
- DO keep track of the time. When the person is telling you interesting stories, it’s easy to lose track of time. As the meeting gets into the last five to seven minutes of the agreed upon time, mention casually, “oh it’s almost time to wrap up, I know you’re busy.” If at any point they say “I have to go to another meeting”, express appreciation for the opportunity and wrap it up. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 more questions to ask, you should always respect their time.
- DO NOT ask for a job! Never ask for a job or a referral in your first meeting. Remember that the purpose of an informational interview is to obtain information. If the person offers to keep you in mind for potential opportunities, say thank you and ask if you could send them your resume later, but you shouldn’t be the one asking for such favours first.
- DO NOT monopolize the conversation. Some people want to have an informational interview but all they end up doing is talking about themselves. In an informational interview, practice active listening. That’s why it’s important to prepare well beforehand and keep track of the time.
- DO NOT complain. As much as you may be frustrated with your job search or other issues, keep focused on learning more about the person. When initiating a long-term relationship, first impressions are important, so refrain from talking negatively.
- DO ask for advice and be willing to do the work. Some people ask for advice, and even after getting many ideas, they still ask, “so, what should I do?” Others don’t really want to change their current approaches. While not everything will work in the same way that has worked for the person you’re meeting, keep an open mind and look for ways to reinvent yourself.
- DO follow up with a Thank-You note: Always, always send a message expressing gratitude, preferably within 24 hours of the meeting. In your message, refer to some portions of the conversation, tell them how the advice was helpful to you, and mention that you’ll be in touch.
Your own reflections
After the meeting, take some time to review the information you got, and decide on the next steps.
This is what I mean by “doing the work” — gaining information is fantastic, but if you don’t do much with it, you won’t get results.
- Learning points: What did I learn about this person’s career path, profession and/or company? What did I learn about the industry? Did I achieve the goals that I set before the meeting?
- New discoveries: What was completely new or even surprising about the points they shared? Am I still interested in this field/organization/industry?
- Thoughts and application: Can I see myself studying this, doing this job, or working in this industry? Why or why not? What actions can I take?
- Development: What additional skills do I need to develop to succeed in this field?
- Future information interviews: What can I improve for future meetings?
Keeping in touch
In order to continue building strong relationships that lead to opportunities, you can keep in touch in different ways. For example:
- When you get a notification on LinkedIn that it’s their birthday, they got a promotion or changed jobs, send a quick note congratulating them
- Show reactions, comment on, or share their posts
- Email them an article related to their areas of interest, stating your own thoughts about it
- If their company is mentioned in the news, and you talked about it, send them a quick note
- Simply say “hi” from time to time
One of my favourite job search experts, Austin Belcak, recommends using this practical method to keep track:
- Open Excel or Google Sheets and add in the list of people whom you want to keep in touch. Make the following columns: name, email, social links, the date of your last engagement, and “notes.”
- Choose two contacts you want to engage with. Leave a comment on their post, send them an email, check in, etc. When you’re done, add today’s date in the “last engagement” column.
- Rinse and repeat every day until you’ve touched base with each contact at least once.
- Next, sort the “Last Engagement” column by oldest to newest.
- Continue that daily engagement with the two people at the top of the list. Make it a habit. This strategy is one of the most effective ways to get on people’s radar and into their networks!
Whatever the method you use, do keep in touch with your network. Don’t be the person who only reaches out when needing something.
The big picture
While I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible, this is not meant to be a manual to follow meticulously. As you get more comfortable conducting informational interviews, you’ll find your own style and ways of acquiring the information you need. The key is to get started!
I should also mention that meeting great people at the right time may lead to a nice job opportunity, but actually landing the opportunity is not guaranteed. What is certain, though, is that informational interviews will help you broaden your knowledge, network and career vision because they are part of the long-term journey of your professional life.