How to make the most of an informational interview

01/10/2017 11:04 am ET

Informational interviews can provide you with a unique opportunity to learn more about particular company or job that interests you. If you’ve been successful at securing an informational interview, you’ll now want to ensure you make a positive impression with the person who’s agreed to speak with you.

The overarching principle of any successful informational interview is to do whatever you can to establish a positive rapport with the person. If conducted effectively, an informational interview can lay the foundation for a new relationship and ongoing communications in the future that could lead to a relevant professional opportunity. Here are some tips on how you can effectively run the interview itself.

Best practices to be effective

While informational interviews typically aren’t overly formal, treat this meeting seriously and professionally. After all, someone has graciously taken time out of his busy day to lend a hand. Be sure to:

  • Respect the person’s time. It goes without saying that you should be the one to show up early and on time. If you said your meeting will last 20 minutes, you should indicate you’re wrapping things up when 20 minutes are up. If the person extends you the courtesy to continue, that’s fine.
  • Know the questions you plan to ask. The last thing you want to do is show up unprepared. You should make sure you invest time to know exactly which questions you want to cover and ensure the meeting is efficient.
  • Be prepared to talk about yourself too. While you’re not the one being interviewed per se, you need to have your own story polished up reasonably well so you come across as focused and clear about your goals and the value you can also offer.

How to prepare

Although this isn’t a formal interview, you should invest time preparing for the conversation so you can run it as efficiently as possible. Demonstrating you’ve made an effort to come prepared in exchange for the courtesy of this person offering his or her time to you is critical. Make sure you come equipped with your list of questions written out. The mere act of pulling out your notes can be impressive to signal how seriously you’re taking this.

You’ll want to ensure you’ve done your homework on the organization or company where this person works. Review annual reports, recent news, and earnings results. You should also be well-versed in this person’s background. The easiest way is to Google the person’s name or check their LinkedIn profile. “Look at all the places they worked in the past, the growth path of their job descriptions, where they went to school, what groups and organizations they belong to, and all the connections you have in common,” says Thom Singer, the author of The ABCs of Networking. “Armed with this information, you should be able to find something in common to help you build rapport in the early part of your conversation.”

What you should ask

After you’ve done your prep work, you can focus your questions on non-public information only available by speaking with someone within an organization. “Use the time with the interviewee to only ask pre-prepared questions for information that you were unable to find in your own research,” recommends Matthew Odgers, an attorney at Odgers Law Group who regularly fields requests for informational interviews. “The person will be impressed and usually give much more valuable information.”

Avoid asking questions you could look up the answers to yourself. Here are just a few example questions you could ask during your informational interview, focused on information not readily available in public company materials:

  • How did you make your decision to work in this sector/industry/company?
  • What misperception did you have about your work prior to entering?
  • What’s something you wished you had known that you now know about your line of work?
  • What types of people tend to excel in your organization & why?
  • What do you most and least enjoy about your work?
  • What do you feel I should know about applying to roles in your field?
  • What’s something you’ve discovered only after being in the sector for many years?

What you should be prepared to say

Although you’ll be the one interviewing them, you should come equipped to answer at least the following three questions, outlined in this article on Three Questions You Must Rehearse When Job Hunting:

  • What’s your background?
  • What are you looking for?
  • Can you tell me about yourself?

Although this is not a formalized interview, some people you meet with may treat this like an informal mock interview to keep you in mind as a candidate in case a relevant role arises in the future. You must be prepared if this happens. “In addition to providing some background into your experience and status, you should be prepared to talk about your interests and skills and why you are interested in this particular field,” states former Associate Director of the University of Pennsylvania Career Services Jane Finkel of Career Visions. “This person you’re speaking to could become a good network contact in the future.”

Common pitfalls

First, treating the meeting TOO casually is a common issue. While an informational interview is meant to be informal, make no mistake that this meeting is still a professional one. You should make sure you dress professionally, show up on time, and ensure you’re extremely well prepared.

Second, trying to do too much in this one single meeting is not wise. Don’t push the person to talk about job vacancies or go into sales mode. Remember, this informational interview is all about establishing a positive rapport, not securing a formalized job interview or offer. “The purpose of an informational interview is to gather information,” states Bill Driscoll, president of Accountemps. “Don’t oversell yourself since you’re not a candidate applying for an open position.”

This is the start of a hopefully long-term professional relationship. If you push too hard in this first meeting, the person sparing their time may feel like you misled them by simply calling this an informational interview when you had a hidden agenda.

What to do after the interview

Make sure you stay in touch and say thank you too. I’m often surprised how few people send thank you notes or emails these days. I’d recommend sending either a hand-written note or email the following day, highlighting what you gained from the conversation and how you plan to move forward based on what you learned.

I’d also suggest you provide any major updates to that individual, especially if following any advice coming out of the meeting ended up materializing in some significant progress. For example, if you end up landing in a job in that target area, be sure to let remind that person of the positive impact she had. Too many people forget to thank the very people who helped them achieve their goals.

Please don’t be that person.

After you land the opportunity you wanted, take the time to acknowledge the people who took the time to provide you with some valuable input to help you achieve your goals.

Get your checklist: 8 things to do before an informational interview

Before walking into an informational interview, you should have completed some basic preparation steps. Download your free “Informational Interview Preparation Checklist” to ensure you make the most of your informational interview and leave that person with a positive impression.

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