The Informational Interview
If Anne Hathaway’s Devil Wears Prada character had gone on a few informational interviews before starting at Runway magazine, things might have turned out differently. Informational interviews can help you understand the pros and cons of charting a new career path or give you advice on the next steps in your current industry. It’s less formal than a job interview and more in-depth than having a quick chat with someone at a networking event. Here’s what you need to know to make informational interviews work for you.
Respect the person’s time. Not only should you make yourself available when and where it’s convenient for the other person (I once went on a three-mile walk with someone so I could pick her brains about publishing), but you should keep it within the time allotted. If your e-mail asks for 20 minutes over coffee, don’t drag it out by asking loads of follow-up questions and playing show and tell with your portfolio.
If things are going well 18 minutes into the conversation and you’d like to chat a little longer, tell her, “I’m finding this really helpful, but I don’t want to keep you from your next appointment. Should I follow up with you another time or do you have a few more minutes to chat?” Then do exactly what she says.
Practice your listening skills. In a job interview, it’s your goal to prove that you’re confident and capable. In an informational interview, it’s your job to soak up as much information as possible. Prepare a loose framework of questions (“What trade journals should I be reading?” or “How is the job outlook for people trying to enter your field?”), then button up and let the other person talk. Resist interjecting anecdotes from your college internship or that article you read in the Wall Street Journal. A few well-chosen questions will show that you’re interested without showing off.
Don’t expect a job offer. Every once in a while, you’ll discover during an informational interview that the person’s company is looking for a new marketing manager or someone’s friend just fired her assistant. But this won’t happen every time, and that doesn’t the mean the interview was a failure. Rather than setting your sights on gathering job leads, strive to build professional relationships and gain a better understanding of the industry. Over time, those relationships and insights could help you land a job, but it’s best to set realistic expectations.
When in doubt, dress to impress. If you’re meeting with someone informally after hours, it can be hard to know how to dress. After all, it’s not a job interview, so a suit might be a little over the top for a latte at Starbucks. I once fell into this trap when I met another writer for coffee on a Sunday morning. She told me she’d be coming from the gym, so I dressed down to mirror her. But then her plans changed last minute, and I wished I’d chosen something a little more professional than sneakers and sweats! A nice sweater and pants would be much more appropriate.
Send a thank-you. It’s not enough to buy the person a chai latte and thank them for their time. If you hope to ask for this person’s advice in the future, then a heartfelt thank-you card (or at the very least an e-mail) is a must. Personalize it by mentioning a book the other person recommended or a professional organization you plan to join based on her suggestion. Add that you appreciate her time and admire her work. A little (sincere) validation goes a long way.