Leveraging the Power of Informational Interviews

By Stephen Dupont, APR

To some, informational interviews are a routine part of being a working professional. But to others, informational interviews can offer moments of transformation – and not just for those seeking information and contacts, but also for those sharing their insights and advice.

Throughout my career, I have made time for those who ask for such interviews, to share insights and advice about the things I’ve learned in my journey as a communicator, marketer and business professional. Accepting an informational interview request not only makes me feel better about myself as a professional, but can serve as an opportunity to learn something new about myself in the process.

Part of my enthusiasm for informational interviews (or coffees, as many now call them) is that I’ve sat on the other side of the table seeking the wisdom of others to make career-altering decisions, from learning about career options to better understanding my purpose. I would not be where I am today were it not for the many people within the business, advertising and public relations community who have so generously shared their time and insight with me throughout my career.

This is why I advocate that more business professionals not only make time to give more informational interviews to those who ask, but also to make the time to seek the wisdom of others. I strongly believe that regardless of how many miles you’ve put into your career, those who remain curious – who make it a habit of meeting new people and sharing ideas – are those who stay relevant longer over the course of their career.

In other words, informational interviews are not just for college students, nor should they be left for that moment when you desperately need a job. That’s because at the heart of the informational interview is the act of building long-term relationships and collaborating with others in an exchange of ideas.

So how can you leverage the simple, yet humbling act of asking for an informational interview to feed your career, whether you’re the person seeking advice or the person offering it? Here are some tips to consider:

  • Do your homework. Before you meet, take at least 15 minutes, minimum, to gather background information about the person with whom you’re meeting. That’s not really asking a lot, is it? Take a look at the person’s profile on LinkedIn, visit his or her Twitter page, or do a quick Google Search. Interviewers (those who requested the interview) should visit the website of the organization where the Interviewee works. Interviewees should ask the person requesting an informational interview to send you a resume or work samples of their work to help you gather your thoughts before you meet.
  • Ask. Are you seeking a job? Do you want insight on whether a specific career path is right for you? Do you want feedback about an idea for a new project or venture? Do you want to verify a decision that you’re close to making about your career, for example, taking a job with a certain employer or moving to a new city? When asking for the informational interview, specify just what you’re looking for. This will help the Interviewee come better prepared to help you.
  • Come prepared with smart questions. The questions you ask are a reflection of your preparation and your thinking. If someone only has an hour to spend with you, make that time count. This is why doing your homework is critical. Consider this: Instead of asking someone, “How did you get to where you are today?,” study the interviewee’s LinkedIn page to ask a more specific question: “I’m thinking of making a transition from the consulting (agency) side of our industry to the corporate side. I saw from your LinkedIn page that you did that earlier in your career. How did you make that decision, and why? And, in hindsight, would you do it all over again?”
  • Ask for help in formulating the questions. Sometimes, we don’t know the questions to ask. For example, I recently met with a senior communications professional who was at a crossroads in her career. We focused on what questions she should be asking herself and her spouse about the direction she should take with her career. Validating another person’s struggle by helping them understand the questions that you may have asked yourself in the past (or are still asking yourself) can create the safe space a person needs to address their fears and worries.
  • Always bring a pen and at least one piece of paper. This might sound old school, but if you don’t have something to write down ideas or collect information, such as possible contacts, then what’s the point? After all, it is an interview. Forgot a piece of paper? Quick! Grab a napkin. I measure the success of an informational interview when I see both parties busily scribbling notes and engaging in the possibilities of new ideas.
  • Build your story. Informational interviews offer the opportunity to share your story. And that’s why it’s so important to think about how you want to present yourself – where you’ve been, where you’re going, what drives you, and the decisions that have shaped you. One of the most common questions you’ll receive throughout your life is: “So, what do you do for a living?” Do what most won’t: Write down your answer to that question in less than 250 words and have the Interviewee review it at your next informational interview. What a great way to start the conversation and get immediate feedback about where you’re going with your career.
  • Immediately following your meeting, summarize what you learned. After an informational interview, before you become caught up in the rest of your day, stop for 15 minutes and write down the most valuable insights or advice you received. Similarly, for those who were asked for the interview, consider writing down the thoughts that you shared and put them into a file for future reflection. This little habit will help internalize the value of the interview.
  • Take action. Then, after you’ve written down the most powerful piece of advice that you’ve gleaned from a recent information interview, resolve to take action on at least one item within three days. This could mean reading a book that the Interviewee recommended, arranging another informational interview, applying for a job, writing a blog post or signing up for a seminar. When you take a positive step, based on something you learned from an informational interview, you will feel empowered, and it will lead to more positive change.
  • Follow-up immediately. Later, on the same day, send a brief thank-you email to the professional you interviewed. Follow that up with a hand-written thank you note. It’s very rare to receive handwritten correspondence any more – that’s why a hand-written note is a particularly personal and human way of expressing your thanks.
  • Stay in touch. After you’ve gone to the effort of building familiarity with someone, don’t let that new connection go dormant. I invite everyone I talk with to send me notes about how they’re doing and to ask me for a follow-up coffee. I’ve sent follow-up emails asking, “What information or advice resonated with you?” I genuinely want to know. For others, I have instructed them to send me a note 60 days later to hold them “accountable” to the changes they want to make (such as building their network). Similarly, interviewees can make the effort to stay in touch with those people they find interesting, and who one day may be future work colleagues or clients.

This is about relationships, being human and being kind. In the end, the real reason you should make time for informational interviews is this: you actually want to get to know people. I don’t care what line of work you do, whether you’re a Fortune 100 CEO or a barber (like my father was), your success will rise and fall based on the relationships you build with others. To paraphrase business consultant Kevin Knebl, co-author of The Social Media Sales Revolution, “There is no success without conversations. There is no success in a vacuum.” We are all in the relationship business, whether we realize it or not, and you can’t start a relationship until you sit down with someone and begin a conversation. Sharing what we know, and witnessing the journeys of others, is the first step in building a lifetime of fruitful relationships.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or visit his blog, stephendupont.co.

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