Informational (Exploratory) Interviews: Strategies for success for asking or answering questions!
By Aliza Golshani, Founder of Your Path Careers
An informational interview stands alone from other types of interviews in its purpose and conventions.
Informational interviews explained
The word 'informational' is key to understanding that this type of interview is fundamentally about seeking and receiving advice. It is not an interview used exclusively by job seekers hoping the conversation will lead to a direct job offer (although those with relevant experience, aligned skills and goals may get lucky.)
If you are considering asking for an informational interview, read this advice first:
Informational interviews are 'a role reversal' of traditional interviews.
You (usually a potential job seeker or someone considering a course of study or career change) are the 'interviewer' and a professional you speak with is 'the interviewee'. They may work in an industry or with a company you are interested in learning about, or they might have relevant expertise or experience that can guide your vocational decision making.
Your specific goals will determine the types of questions you ask and the way you structure the conversation.
Identify your goals for the Informational Interview
You need clear intentions and aspirations, for requesting an informational interview. Explicitly communicate these goals to the interviewee. For example: 'I would like to learn more about your career trajectory in Communications, since I may be interested in pursuing my career in this sector'.
Be sure to tell the interviewee why you want to talk with them:
Do you want to:
- Land a (new) job
- Increase your professional network
- Learn more about an industry or company
- Gain clarity in your decision making for a career transition
- Plan a course of entry for your career
Decide who to contact
- Where possible, request to speak with people you already know –friends, family, contacts of your contacts and your LinkedIn connections. These people may recommend others.
- If you have had minimal prior exposure to an industry, have recently relocated or have a shortage of local contacts, try personal networking, contacting people through their professional email or requesting LinkedIn connections with an appropriate note explaining why you are contacting them.
- Choose interviewees carefully to facilitate a productive and positive experience for both participants. Try to ascertain that the interviewee is genuinely happy to share their knowledge and talk about their experiences (and did not just agree to participate because the request came from their boss.)
How to have a valuable informational interview experience
I have been a participant on both sides of the informational interview fence – as an interviewer and interviewee. I have enriched my knowledge and made genuine connections.
Advice to have a meaningful conversation and prevent 'informational interview faux pas'
If you are asking questions:
- Know why you want to have this conversation and convey this information beforehand
- Think about what valuable information can this person share that you cannot research independently?
- Provide details of a referral contact (if any)
- Nominate the conversation start and end times, like you would for an official meeting.
Half an hour to forty-five minutes is recommended. Busy people will appreciate this!
- Send a reminder confirmation in writing beforehand.
- Prepare question categories and prioritize a few important questions –
Make sure you have time to discuss what you really want to know.
- During the conversation, or immediately afterwards, write down what you learned
If you are answering questions:
- Clearly state your parameters for discussion and the type of information you are happy to share.
Miscommunications can arise when the aims and purpose of the conversation left unfulfilled.
- If your interviewer doesn't nominate the length of conversation, then you should (to clarify expectations).
Benefits if you are asking questions:
Learning: You may hear about an insider's perspective of a course of study, profession, an industry or a specific organization - the positives and negatives. This may help guide your decision making about your future course of action.
Developing relationships:You have the chance to ask intelligent questions and encourage your interviewee to consider future communications with you or introduce you to others in their network – this may lead to an opportunity such as a job offer in the future.
Benefits if you are answering questions:
You can gain a deeper understanding about career points of entry, hear about experiences and knowledge incomers can bring to your profession (or company).
You may even broaden your perspective about your career by discussing new topics or issues – or revitalizing why you chose your career initially!
Maybe… just maybe, you or your company is recruiting and your interviewer has substantial knowledge and experience about your field, and seemingly the right attitude. You may choose to continue discussions to explore if they would be a good fit for a position in your organization. Alternatively, you might introduce them to someone in your professional network.
Communications after the informational interview
After the interview, in almost all instances, you as an interviewer are encouraged to send a timely thank you note, specifying how the conversation was valuable and any personal insights. This action expresses appreciation for the interviewees' time and their knowledge. It is also a way to 'pay it forward' to others who maybe considering an informational interview.
When people believe that their time has been well spent, they are more inclined to participate in similar experiences again – and encourage their network to also share their professional knowledge.
Aliza Golshani is the Founder of Your Path Careers.
After transitioning from the legal and educational sectors, Aliza found her career purpose - helping others successfully navigate their career and professional transitions.
Aliza Golshani is frequent guest blogger for Phase2Careers