Informational Interviews: What They Are, How They’re Done, and Why You Should do Them Weekly
Have you ever wondered how the people you admire achieved their success? What they’ve learned? How they think? Well, you can just ask them.
Lately, I’ve received questions about the what, how, and why of informational interviews and realized I have a lot to say. My numbers for reaching out to strangers for their advice: 0 in 2018, 17 in 2019, and 58 in 2020 so far. Hopefully, the following way-too-many words will demystify the process for those in the 2018 boat.
What are informational interviews?
Conversations with people you admire to learn from their experience and advice. I prefer the term “informational conversations,” but I’ll use the established vocab for simplicity.
What do they have to do with networking?
You can build your network one meaningful conversation at a time. The widespread implication of networking as shallow interactions in a judgmental, self-serving context does not apply. If you like learning through interesting conversations then voila, informational interviews are for you.
Finding interesting people
You’ve probably already come across many. Think about the blogs, podcasts, and companies you follow. Who gets featured? Who runs them? Who works in a department or team that you'd like to learn about? LinkedIn is a great tool for finding professionals in niches of interest.
Time for research phase 1: spend 10-20 minutes looking at their LinkedIn posts, Google search results, and easily accessible online content. This step will: 1. determine if you’re actually interested in talking to them and 2. provide the context you’ll use to reach out. Next, find their contact info. Email is best, but LinkedIn messages work too.
Writing the message
Introduce yourself, explain how you found them, comment on something they’ve said/done/created (related to why you want to talk to them), and then ask to chat for 15 minutes to share their advice. An example:
*The level of formality depends on the person’s industry and seniority.
But I’m too scared to reach out
What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t reply? They say no? Think about it: if someone reached out to you with a meaningful message asking for your advice and narrative, wouldn’t you be delighted? If your message is sincere and specific about why you want to talk to them and they say no, they’re probably just too busy and it's nothing personal.
Once they say yes and you settle on a date, proceed with:
Research phase 2
Always do your research beforehand. Some people have more publicly available information than others, so do your research at least a day in advance looking at their industry, company, online presence, and content. Have they written any articles or books, been featured in publications, run a personal website, started a company, given a recorded presentation, shared thought leadership on social media, etc?
I suggest you read (almost) everything, especially if they’re content creators on Medium, a personal website, or blog. Asking questions they’ve dedicated time to publicly answering in the past is rude. Jot down questions that expand upon the material you find.
At this point, you’ve probably collected 20+ questions. Shorten your list by evaluating the fit: want advice about the college-to-career transition? Ask someone who graduated 1-3 years ago, not 15. Then, sort your list by order of importance and select the first 10. You won't have time to ask all of them, but it's enough to have variety without the overwhelm of scanning a massive list.
The success of the informational interview (how much value you offer and receive) depends on your questions, which depend on your research. Before you google “10 best informational interview questions” pause and ask yourself what you want to learn from this person. What made you so excited about them that you reached out for a one-on-one conversation? You’re not limited to a certain pool of questions. You could ask about their favorite ice cream toppings… informational interviews are the most dynamic sources of information, so ask freely and intentionally.
The value of research alone
The research process isn’t just to be polite and appear motivated. In some cases, I’ve found my preparatory research to be even more helpful than the actual conversation. Research requires keywords and a direction, and the informational interview process provides plenty.
Introduce yourself, reiterate why you wanted to talk to them, thank them for their time, and turn over the mic. Use your questions as a guide but stay open to more important follow-up questions relevant to where their responses steer the conversation.
If you initially asked for 15 minutes and the conversation is flowing, ask them if it’s okay to continue. If they offer more of their time, thank them, and keep your eye on the clock for the 30-minute mark, which is usually when I wrap it up.
The thank-you email
You must send a thank you email. I’m backed by every how-to-informational-interview article out there on this one. It doesn’t have to be within 5 minutes of ending the call, but send it the same day. If you forget, sending it the next day is better than not sending one at all.
Thank them for their time, highlight 2-3 of their insights you found valuable, explain how you will incorporate their advice into your project / career / research, and offer your best wishes.
If you had a good conversation, you may include a relationship-building question at the end: can you reach out again in the future with more questions? Can they introduce you to someone else who may be able to offer you advice about (insert something specific)?
Never ask for a job, recommendation, or other large favor. If you reached out to learn about recruitment at their company, you can ask to follow up with them closer to the application for a cover letter review or mock interview.
You don’t have to follow my formula (it’s a loose guide I change often), but find your way of adding value through your email. As someone with less experience, you probably can’t offer much in return for their time. But you can provide the satisfaction of having an impact on your life, your gratitude, and extreme personalization.
Wait, but then how do people get jobs through networking?
If you show up prepared and excited time and time again, people will want to help you. But it takes many interactions to build a relationship, and you can’t gauge someone’s investment in your success until they offer to recommend or coach you.
Why you should talk to cool strangers every week
Learning from others and building your network along the way takes time and effort. But each conversation offers a unique opportunity to learn and receive guidance. With the right approach, establishing new relationships through informational interviews is inspiring, fun, and rewarding.
I promise it’s not as scary as it seems. One or two good conversations is all it takes to get hooked.
Don’t reach out to more than 10 people a day. You won’t get a 100% response rate, but in the event most say yes, you won't have time to adequately prepare for all of the upcoming conversations, decreasing the value of each.
If they don’t reply, follow up. Most people are busy and either miss messages or forget to reply. After 1-2 weeks, reiterate your desire to speak with them and send your availability for the upcoming week so all they have to do is choose a date.*
*If you reach out via email, include your availability in your first communication. LinkedIn message requests don’t offer enough space, though.
If they still don’t reply, follow up again.
If they still don’t reply, (and you remain determined to talk to them), send them your list of questions after your in-depth research. Spending time crafting questions before they accept is a risk that usually pays off. Most professionals, especially the more experienced, don’t want to waste time answering questions someone else (or the internet) could answer. Your list of questions shows them that you are interested in them and have already invested time in learning about them. The reciprocity principle usually holds and they’ll be more inclined to offer you their time in return.
Remember you’re reaching out to a person. Break up their inflow of similarly worded requests with humor, personalization, and mentions of common interests. If it’s your first informational interview and you’re nervous, mention it! They’ll probably be understanding and honored you chose them to ask your first questions.
Start with alumni. People are more likely to respond when they have something significant in common with you. Attending the same university creates an instant point of connection. They also probably reached out to alumni when they were students and want to return the help.
In-personal meetings are the best, but usually unrealistic. A video call is exponentially better than a phone call. A phone call is better than not having a conversation at all.
Want 0-risk practice? Draft your best informational interview request email and send it my way.