Informational interviews are casual meetings where you scope out potential jobs and learn activities in your industry. Depending on the connection, you may be able to get advice on your career path. The important thing about informational interviews is that you’re letting people know you’re on the job market and are looking for details to help you in your search.
So you’ve scored an informational interview with an amazing person who you think can connect you to opportunities or offer you advice as you restart your career. Great! Now what?!
Don’t panic, but do prepare. Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about the market, figure out where your skills might be best suited, assess where you have skill or experience gaps that need to be filled and get you connected to someone who can open a door when the right opportunity becomes available. But they only work that magic if you use them wisely.
1. Know what you want to get from the conversation.
This may sound obvious, but I’ve been amazed at how often I get on a phone call with someone who’s asked to meet me and it’s extremely unclear what they are hoping to achieve by talking to me. If you are hoping your new contact can wave a magic wand and make a great job appear you are likely to be disappointed. Worse, you aren’t likely to use the time as effectively as you could. Have a clear sense of what you hope to achieve. Do you want to know how they got the job they have now? What life is like at their company? What skills and experiences someone needs to be successful in their role? These are all great questions to ask and can give you key insights. Write down a list of questions you want to ask to keep yourself on track.
2. Know as much as you can about them before the meeting.
Do as much research as you can before the meeting on the person’s background. Pay particular attention to their current role, since they can be the most helpful in their current company. But know all the places they’ve worked, what their role was, and how long they were there. This information is generally readily available. You should also make sure you know if you have any connections in common.
3. Know that it’s not an interview, but prepare as if it were.
The absolute worst mistake you can make on a networking call is to try and turn it into a job interview. This always backfires. Your contact will feel duped. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare as if it were an interview. First, it can turn into one. In the course of the conversation they may say “Actually, we have a few openings here that might fit your background …” Second, even if that doesn’t happen, you want to leave your contact with a great impression so that if and when they hear about openings – at their company or elsewhere – they think of you. Be ready to talk about your background and experience and what you hope to do next (see next tip).
4. Know how to articulate what you want to do next, even if you aren’t totally sure what that is.
Many women and men who are trying to restart their careers lament that they aren’t sure what they want to do. They may not have liked their old job, their old job may not exist anymore or they may just want to have more options. The trick is to frame your ideas in a way that doesn’t sound scattered. If you say “I’m open to anything!” it makes you sound desperate and unfocused. Compare that to this: “I spent many years working in direct marketing for a large bank. I’m looking to leverage the skills and experience I gained and I have a few ideas for how I can do that. One is corporate communications because I spent a lot of time writing and also presenting to internal stakeholders. The second is digital marketing, because while the channels are different from direct marketing, many of the tactics are similar and I think my experience with marketing fundamentals would be very valuable. Finally, I’m considering a move into nonprofit fundraising because my research has revealed that there are a lot of skills I have that would transfer well to that role.” From there you can describe why you want to talk to your contact, specifically, while still giving them a sense of the directions you may want to go in. The better you can articulate your vision for your future self – even if it has a few different versions – the better your contacts will be able to help you make it real. Your articulation of what’s next is also a great chance to get their feedback on your ideas for your future.
5. Know when to wrap up the conversation – and how to follow up.
Be mindful of the time and be sure to get your most critical questions answered early. After the call, be sure to send a thank you note that reiterates any specific help they offered to give you (introduction to another contact, review of your resume, ideas for resources). You should always specifically follow up if any help given has a specific result – for example if you get an interview for a job they told you about. Beyond that, occasional outreach is a great way to keep the connection going. Use milestones or even epiphanies – “After a few more conversations like the one you and I had, I decided to fully focus my efforts on mobile development. Many people mentioned it and it seems a natural fit with my skills. I’m thrilled to have a focus! Let me know if you can recommend any companies that might be a good fit for my background.” – as a good excuse to send an update.
Finally, take a deep breath and relax. If they took the call, they want to help, so their motivation is going to be in the right place. Assume that they want to help you and work with them to figure out the best way. And stay positive. While you may be frustrated by difficulties you are experiencing in your job search, this is not the time to vent. The more upbeat you are, the more likely they will feel positive about the interaction and, in turn, about you.
Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.
Originally published January 2017.