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A Step-by-Step Guide to a Stress-Free Informational Interview

Connel Valentine Jan 27, 2018
It's hard asking strangers for help.

After all, what's in it for them?

You envy their success.

You want to pick their brains and steal some of that success for yourself.

Perhaps you're just starting out in the industry or a new country.

Something is missing from your job applications and they have the answer.

But how do you approach them without feeling the agony of impending rejection and disappointment?

You don't want to be a bother anyone.

And they must be soooooo busy right?

As stressful as it may seem, informational interviews can be the cornerstone of your job search strategy.

Sure, it's easy to bombard online job applications with your resume, but the real go-getters are getting off their butts and actually meeting with the people who have the power and money to hire them.

Adding informational interviews as part of your job search strategy is easier than you think, provided you know the do's and don'ts.

It's a great feeling when your job search feels like a job. Nothing kills depression like speaking to and learning from like-minded professionals.

Following the simple instructions and guidelines from this post will keep you on your toes during a job search.

Why bother with these info interviews when I can spend that time applying for more jobs?

Here's the reality.

When you see a job opening online, the hiring manager already knew months in advance that s/he was going to need this role.

The first question they ask themselves is "Who do I know?"

Ideally, it should be you!

And it's only going to be you if you've met them in person.

This is why networking and informational interviews (a subset of networking) is important - FaceTime!

Meeting someone in person does something that no resume can come close to creating. First-hand insights into your winning personality.

Smart managers hire personalities first, skills second.

I know we live in a text-based world where convenience trumps human interaction.

But until the day that job interviews become obsolete, a firm handshake and a trusting smile will always beat a resume.

But I already have experience

That's good. Now it's time to test your assumptions.

Especially if you're moving to a new city or country, it's a safe bet your industry is practiced differently - if not technically, at least culturally.

Also, if you've been employed for a long time and suddenly need to find work, you're interview skills are rusty.

These informal interviews give you the chance to clean out those cobwebs and recollect what it's like to be in that hot seat.

What's in it for them?

After all, they don't know you.

They don't owe you anything.

This is true. Except they are, in fact, getting something in return.

1. If the interview was set up through a referral, they are doing a favor for the person they already know. They will call in that favor when the time is right. Win!
2. If it's a cold email/call, you will meet for a coffee or lunch at their convenience. On you of course. A free meal. Win!
3. You will make it clear to them that you are reaching out because you value their expertise. Flattery and Ego Booster. Win!
4. They have 100% assurance that they will not be put in an awkward situation with you and they will control the conversation. Win!

Assuming you're speaking to a person with half a heart, they will oblige.

But you have to nail down your approach to get these 4 wins!

The approach

1. Referrals are the best way to get the approval of the interviewer.
Hop onto your social media profiles (LinkedIn/Facebook) and send a broadcast message to your contacts - "I'd like to speak to somebody in [your industry] in [city/county]. Does anybody know someone I can talk to?"
If you get a response, request for an introduction.
2. If you organically found someone on LinkedIn with a target search for the company/job title, it's cold message time. Send them a LinkedIn invite, never forgetting to add a personalized note with the invite. Don't make the request icier by sending the default request message.
3. Go for a laser-focused approach by Googling your industry + associations + country. Find people to connect with from the websites of these associations.
3. When reaching out, ask for AIR. Advice. Insights. Recommendations. Tell them you are seeking expert advice in your industry, and their profile stood out for you. Offer to meet with them for 30 minutes over a coffee or lunch at their convenience. (Credit to the A.I.R. acronym goes to Marc Miller from CareerPivot.)
4. Never EVER make it sound like you want a job. And be explicit about it. Don't leave room for negative assumptions that we human beings tend to make. Tell them that you are not looking for a job and are only looking to seek their advice about your industry.

An example of a request might sound like this:

"Hi John. I was referred to you by Connel from Zero2Hired. I am looking to speak to experts in [your industry] and Connel advised me that your the top person to speak to in this field. I'm new to the industry/country, and I'm seeking the advice and recommendations of 10-15 experts in this field. Whenever you're free, I'd like to treat you to coffee/lunch at a time and location that's convenient for you. I won't be pressuring you for jobs. I only seek to learn from your expertise and insights. Your experience in [something that you can relate to from their LinkedIn profile] stands out and I'd like to understand how you handled the challenges you faced. Hope to talk to you soon."

With the above approach, you will be lining up conversations with people who have the potential to hire you before the job posting comes out.

Your Goals

1. You want to learn about how the industry is practiced, both technically and culturally
2. You want the person to like you so that they will respond positively to the most important question at the end, which is...
3. "Can you recommend anyone else I can speak to?"

As stated before, if you are just stepping into this industry or moving to a new country, this is the opportunity for you to get ground zero information you will never see online or in a job description.

You can use these golden nuggets of information in your resume and cover letter.


Because every job exists to solve problems, overcome challenges and make somebody (your managers) look good.

The questions you will prepare (coming up) will extract these vital points for your sales pitch in your actual interviews.

You also want the person to like you. You can do this by:

1. Making the interview about them, not you. Let them do 80% of the talking.
2. Make them feel like you're taking this meeting seriously.
3. Ask questions, listen and shut up. Fight the urge to talk about yourself, unless asked.
4. Throw in a few compliments (but don't cross the line to obvious ass-licking)

In the end, you will ask them the most important question of all - "Do you recommend anyone else I can speak to about [your industry]?"

Now, it's their reputation on the line to the person they may refer you to.

If you come off as a complete jerk to them, you will get a cold "No".

But to easily and effectively continue your informational interview journey, you will hopefully get 2-3 recommendations from them if you've earned it.

Your Preparation

In the spirit of being likable, showing the interviewer that their favor is meaningful, you must prepare for this conversation, and give it as much thought as you would a real job interview.

1. Research about the person and the company they work for and bring up any noteworthy points, and make it a personal experience for them.
2. Prepare a short introduction about yourself to open the conversation. Remember, it's about them. 30 seconds maximum. Why you are interested in this field. How long you've been in it. What strengths you bring to the table. That's it.
3. When a date has been set for the interview, send an email/LinkedIn message to the interviewer with five to seven questions (coming up) you plan to ask him/her. This will give them the peace of mind that they know what's coming up and they can mentally prepare for the conversation.
4. Bring your resume with you, but for heaven's sake do not open it up unless they specifically ask for it. Remember, you gave them your word that you will not pressure them for jobs. You will destroy any credibility you have if you go back on the terms of your meeting.

Show Time

At the interview itself, make sure you arrive on time, dressed like you would for an actual job interview.

Remember, you want to create a positive impression on the interview so that they will consider you for future positions as soon as they come up, and for recommending referrals at the end.

Pull out the agenda of questions you have prepared in advance to ask. Use it to take notes.

Note taking shows that you are taking this meeting seriously.

Paper or Tablet, take your pick.

Be super conscious of their time. Personally, I'd recommend setting a timer on your phone for 25 minutes (for a 30 minute meeting). This will allow you to focus on the conversation without concern over time.

At the end, you can make a statement "I know we agreed to talk for 30 minutes. I love to chat longer if you're OK for time."

You show respect for their time and give them the comfort that they can decide to end or prolong the meeting.

You are a professional!

The reason I suggest 25 minutes, is because you need that last five minutes to wrap up whatever point is being discussed, and leave room for the most critical part of the discussion.

"Who else do you recommend I speak to?"

If you've followed along so far, and have proven to be likable and a professional, they will gladly give you the recommendation to continue your discovery and networking mission.

Ego Driven Questions

Here are some sample questions that will keep your interviewer engaged as they willingly astonish you with their wonderful careers and experience.

Remember from their perspective, you will be asking for AdviceInsights, and Recommendations.

From your perspective, you want to learn how your industry solves problems, overcome challenges, and makes your manager look good.

1. "Tell me about your career journey in [industry]"- Insight
2. "What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced?" - Insight | Challenges
3. "Tell me about some of the toughest projects you've managed?" - Insights | Challenges
4. "What would make your life easier at this job?" - Advice | Insights | Problems
5. "What do you find most rewarding about this job?" - Insights | Manager Looks Good
6. "What skills did you develop in this field?" Insights | Advice | Manager Looks Good
7. "How do you handle the work culture in this industry?" Advice
8. "What kinds of people are you in contact with?" Advice
9. "Are there any communities or associations I should follow?" Recommendations
10. "What formal learning strategies do you recommend?" Recommendations
11. "What are the noteworthy trends in this industry right now?" Insights

You're itching to let them know you are on the hunt for a job.

You want to ask them a question related to the problem you have right now.

Without betraying their trust, you can pop the following question:

"I have a couple of jobs that I've applied for. How do you recommend I prepare for the interview?" - Advice

The finishing touches

You've taken so much trouble to prepare for this meeting and call in this favor.

Why waste it?

Don't laze into the out-of-sight-out-of-mind zone.

To begin with, thank the person via email or LinkedIn message with sincere gratitude.

Touch base with them now and again to let them know how your informational interview mission is going and update them on anything new you've learned.

If they have referred you to someone else, let them know how that interview went and what you thought of the person they referred you to.

At some point and some glorious moment in time, when an opening comes up, they will think of you.

For hiring managers to pick your name from the lottery of preferred candidates is entirely up to your efforts in ongoing networking.

Starting Talking the Talk

A newcomer to Canada reached out to me asking for help.

He's in the IT Disaster Recovery Industry.

Being the kind, pay-it-forward soul that I am (as most Canadians proudly are), I offered to set up an informational interview with a colleague in my team who happened to be in the same industry.

I met her in the locker area, asked for the favor, and she gladly agreed to meet him.

Now I owe her one!

People are more helpful than you think. Although we've answered the what's-in-it-for-them question earlier on, there are some who generously just want to pay it forward.

I'll never forget the senior director of another department who agreed to mentor a rising star on my team for absolutely nothing in return.

All I had to do was ask.

If the thought of reaching out to strangers and asking for help scares you, you're missing out.

That hidden job market you keep hearing about? It's been gobbled up by job-seekers with the guts to reach out and meet people.

It's easier when things are in your control right?

You design your own resume, log into your own laptop and self-serve your applications and cross your own fingers waiting for a response.

The road to your next job can be harder and shorter, or easier and looooooonger.

I'm going to take a wild guess and say you want the shorter path.

If you've never done informational interviews before, you will not know how hard it is until you try.

Think of yourself as a journalist interviewing someone. Nobody turns down a moment to shine.

Filling your calendar with networking events and informational interviews will help make you feel like your on a mission, like you have a purpose.

Couch potato job search strategies are reserved for the unemployed.

Get off your butt and reach out to someone today.