The informational interview is the secret tool everyone should have in their back pocket. A hybrid of an amazing networking opportunity, an info session, and a job interview, it can give anyone looking for a job or pondering a career change insider scoop (not to mention a much-needed morale boost).
The problem is that these opportunities aren’t advertised anywhere, typically require a lot of work on your end to make happen, and, in most cases, mean you have to convince strangers why they should take time out of their day to help you.
But with the right approach, you can land these interviews (and maybe even a job). Here’s my advice for finding and approaching potential contacts and getting them to say yes—every time.
Find the Right People
This may seem obvious, but choosing who you approach can make all the difference in hearing back.
Start by making a list of companies you’d love to work at and of job titles or positions you’d be interested in. While people who fit on either list are good, someone who works for your dream company and has your dream role is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.
That said, it’s important to consider what the person does at the company and the size of the company—you want to target people who are in an aspirational role, but who aren't so high up that they won’t have time to meet with you. I may want to talk to the CMO of a major company, but I can probably learn more talking to the marketing director of a smaller company. Also, look for people you have some sort of connection with—if someone went to your college or has a shared connection, he or she will be more likely to want to meet with you.
I prefer using LinkedIn to find people, but then reaching out over email—it’s easier for people to respond to, and you won’t look like LinkedIn spam. (Try our tip for tracking down a hiring manager’s address.)
Perfect the Art of the Ask
Any good cold email has two things: a clear message (why you’re reaching out), and an easy-to-understand ask (the action you want the recipient to take). Here’s a simple formula that checks both boxes and that will work most of the time:
1. Start by Asking for Help
This sounds obvious (and, OK, a little weird), but it’s a proven fact that people love to feel like they are helping others. So, if you literally start by saying, “I’d love your help,” or “I hope you’ll be able to help me out...” your chances of getting a positive response go up significantly.
2. Be Clear
Ask for something very specific, and make it as easy as possible for the person to say yes. Saying, “I’d love to know more about what you do and how you got your start” is okay, but doesn’t tell someone how much of their time you’re after or what you’re really suggesting. Instead, try something like, “I’d love to take you to a quick coffee so I can hear your perspective on this industry and what it’s like to work at your company. I’ll actually be in your area next week and would be happy to meet you wherever is convenient for you.”
3. Have a Hook
A great way to increase your chance of landing the interview is to demonstrate why you really want to meet with this person. Do you admire their career path? Do you think the work they’re currently doing at company X stands out as the best? Maybe you have a shared connection and think they would be a great voice of wisdom. Don’t be afraid to share why you are specifically reaching out to this person. The more personalized your ask feels, the greater chance of success you’ll have.
4. Be Very Considerate
Remember that, in asking for an informational interview, you’re literally asking someone to put their work on hold to help you. Show your contact you understand this by saying, “I can only imagine how busy you must get, so even 15-20 minutes would be so appreciated.”
5. Make Sure You Don't Seem Like You’re Looking for a Job (Even if You Are)
If you sound like you’re really just looking for a job, there’s a good chance this person will push you to HR or the company’s career page. So be sure to make it clear that you really want to talk to them, to learn about their career history and perspective on the job or industry. After you meet and make a great impression is when you can mention the job hunt.
Follow Up, and Be Pleasantly Persistent
If you don’t hear back right away, don’t worry. People are busy, and sometimes these things slip to the bottom of a person’s to-do list. The key is to not just give up. If you haven’t heard back in a week, reply to your first email and politely ask if your contact has had a chance to read your previous email. Also, use this opportunity to reiterate how much it would mean to you to have 15 minutes to learn from them.
I personally believe that it’s your responsibility to continue to follow up (as nicely as possible) every couple of weeks until you’ve heard an answer one way or the other. Some would say that after one or two tries, you may run the risk of upsetting the person—but I say that sometimes, persistence pays off. At the end of the day, it’s really up to you and your personal comfort level.
That said, once you shoot off a few emails, you’ll see that most people are happy to help (hey, people love talking about themselves). The next step? Getting ready for the meeting. Read on for our best advice on acing the informational interview.