An informational interview is when you find someone who has a job you are interested in and ask them whether they will spend some time telling you about their job and giving you advice. It's not, as some people might think, a way to trick someone into interviewing you for an actual job opening. So you have to be very careful and clear that you are not looking for a job--just information. Most of the people who have requested informational interviews from me were well-coached ahead of time and have held that line admirably. Sometimes they are even a little surprised or flustered when I ask them to send their resume ahead of the meeting. I just like to see what they've done in the past so that I can advise them a little better for the future. (You'll see below that some experts advise against involving your resume at all.)
A few people commented on Marci's post with their own pet peeves. Not saying "thank you" is a big one. Others said to do your homework and don't overstay your welcome.
My author-friend Katy Piotrowski, author of The Career Coward's Guide to Changing Careers, devotes two entire chapters of that book to the fine art of effective informational interviewing. She provides a list of success steps for the informational meeting:
- Determine whether you’ll be meeting in person or over the phone.
- Decide on a time that works for both of you.
- Double-check the appointment time and place.
- Dress appropriately. Aim to look neat, but don’t dress as if you’re going in for a job interview.
- Take notes (and leave your resume at home). You don’t want to present a mixed message. If the specialist asks for your resume, say something like, “Because I’m still deciding on my future career path, I haven’t created my resume yet. However, I’ll be happy to keep you posted on my decisions and share one with you at a later time. Would that be okay?”
- Turn off distractions. Your cell phone, Blackberry, or any other beeping device should be turned off so that you can give the specialist your full attention.
- Be an effective listener. As the interviewer, you should talk 25 percent or less of the time, and listen for 75 percent or more of the conversation.
- Use an agenda. It’s perfectly fine to take along a list of questions. In fact, the interviewer will be impressed that you’re prepared! It’s also fine to share a copy of the questions with the specialist at the beginning of the conversation. This sometimes helps the specialist to stay focused with his or her responses.
- Keep track of the time. You’ve asked for 15 to 30 minutes, so be sure to watch the clock.
- Handle “want a job?” offers. Being offered a job during an informational interview can be flattering and exciting, but be wary of saying, “Yes!”, at least right away. Keep in mind that you’re still researching and making decisions about your career path. It’s better to respond with, “Wow, I’m really flattered. Thank you! Because I’m still researching my career path, I’m not ready to make that kind of decision right now. Could I get back to you in the near future, once I’m clearer about my plans?”
- Wrap up successfully. Review your questions and notes to make sure you’ve covered everything. Confirm the contact information for any referrals you’ve been given, ask for their business card, and look the specialist in the eye and say, “This has been very helpful to me, thank you. May I keep in touch if I have further questions, and to let you know how things progress for me?”
- Send a timely thank-you. Whether it’s an e-mail or a hand-written note (either is fine), it’s important to send a message thanking the specialist for his or her time and insights.