Informational Interviews

Calling them Informational Interviews may seem a rather overblown way of describing the process, but it refers to a whole genre of interviews.

It's a unique genre in the employment market, because you're the one asking the questions and deciding what information you need.

Informational interviews are above all else an opportunity to get some good firsthand information.

Before we get into a structured approach, some things to remember

  • Any contact can provide some information.
  • Any opportunity to get information is useful.
  • Not asking about things you need to know is just wasteful.
  • The right questions can save you a lot of time and effort.

Informational interviews- formal interviews

This really is an interview, but with you doing the work. It's also useful in showing you the difficulties of asking the right questions to get the information you need.

(Remember that when you're the interviewee. Getting information out of people is a science, as well as an art.)

PREPARATION PART ONE: Doing an informational interview from scratch

  • You identify an employer, institution, college, or professional who can give you useful information.
  • You identify the right person to interview.
  • You make an appointment.
  • You research and create your questions.

You identify an employer, institution, college, or professional who can give you useful information.

You're looking for a range of information, whatever the purpose of your interview.

Say you're looking for information about internships in your career.

An employer hires interns, and has a good, structured program. You want to know more about this process, and this particular employer has a good reputation for getting results for their interns. This is the career path as you want it to be, and you need to know how to do things properly.

The same basic identifiers apply to places like colleges, or professionals who can point you in the right direction in your career.

It's extremely important to try and get the best information you can, sourced from the best possible people.

Make it clear what information you need, and why you need it.

That helps the interviewee prepare materials for the interview, and saves a lot of time.

You identify the right person to interview.

This might be a mechanical process. You might just need to talk to the person in the organization who gives that information to the public.

That's not necessarily the case, though, and you should always check your existing information concerning who can actually give you what information.

For the internship example, it's more than likely there's a manager overseeing internships, and that is the right person.

However- The whole point of the interview is about your needs. In many professions, that's specific information.

If you're in a profession where you're at the post-qualification stage, with a lot of options, you may also need more than one source.

Remember- The informational interview is a valuable resource.

Talking to the right person can save you a lot of time.

You're the one determining quality of information, and how much of it you get.

Don't waste the opportunity.

You make an appointment.

This creates a time frame, but it also imposes a few conditions.

The main points:

  • You have only so much time to get your information.
  • You must respect the fact that someone's taken the time and made the effort to give you this information.
  • This is a formal situation, it's all business, unless the interviewee says otherwise.
  • Your questions have to get you the information you want in the time allowed. Edit your questions accordingly.
  • Above all else, be punctual. It's a courtesy, and a reasonable expectation.

You research and create your questions.

This isn't the occasion for rote questions. You need information that relates to your circumstances. You also need information about practical things in relation to your career, your qualifications, etc.

Say you've been given a half hour interview.

Remember to make allowances for the time of the answers.

Don't go over time with your interview unless the interviewee says it's OK.

You can ask about six good questions in half an hour.

An hour is better, if possible, because time pressure is lower, and the conversation flows better.

Most interviewees will have some materials prepared.

If you did your spadework properly when making your enquiry, they'll already know what you need.

IMPORTANT: You may need to ask secondary questions in relation to answers. That means the timing will be affected, unless the other answers have been short. Put your most important questions at the start of the interview.

PREPARATION PART TWO:

The interview itself requires you to get the information in a useful form.

  1. List your questions.
  2. Check your questions for quality and the information they're intended to get for you.
  3. Make a copy of your questions and take it with you to the interview. (Never assume you can just wing it, in any interview. It doesn't work.)

BASIC RULE: MAKE YOUR QUESTIONS CLEAR

Be prepared to handle the answers as you get them.

This can mean taking notes, for complex questions. If you're not a good note-taker, frame your questions to get simpler answers.

You can even rehearse your questions, and organize them so the question structures the answer into a yes/no/maybe form.

Some information just isn't simple. If you're asking about a subject where there's the potential for a lot of detail in the answers, you need to phrase your questions to make that factor manageable.

Try to avoid any level of detail which eats up too much time.

You can ask some questions later, after all.

Don't ask How long is a piece of string?-type questions, ever.

They're a massive waste of time. Some people also find them offensive.

Asking secondary questions, and digressions from your script

NOTE: This is a situation you really do need to see coming, and be ready to handle it if it occurs.

It's important to stay within your time frame, but you can also find that your secondary questions are getting valuable information.

Assuming you still need the answers, some options:

Try to relate the new information to your remaining questions.

Apologize and say that you got so interested you've had to leave out some questions, see what sort of reaction you get to the extra time requirement.

(Some interviewees will just say to leave the questions with them, and they'll send you something.)

CONDUCTING THE INTERVIEW

This is an interview. That means:

You conduct it on a business level, and on the interviewee's terms, usually on their premises. Respect that.

You dress accordingly.

Make sure you use the correct form of address for the interviewee. Professional honorifics like Doctor, for example, are important.

Basic rules for conducting an interview:

  • Make the interviewee comfortable.
  • Be professional, don't get casual or lazy.
  • Stick to the point, don't go off topic, because it wastes time and doesn't get information, and will probably irritate the interviewee.
  • Let the interviewee get a word in.
  • Be positive in your questions, looking for constructive information.
  • Listen to what you're being told.
  • Target and refine your questions for the best results.

DON'T, AND WE REALLY MEAN, DON'T:

  • Don't be verbose. You're there to get answers.
  • Don't interrupt.
  • Don't argue. You don't have to agree. Remember, you asked for it, literally.
  • Don't interpret answers to suit yourself. Stick to the actual statements, don't spin them and fire them back into the interview. Leave that to the chat shows.
  • Don't get off topic.

INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS ARE EXTREMELY USEFUL THINGS

The informational interview is a real asset. You can find a lot of information quickly, and you choose the source.

In many professions, that's truly valuable, because expert information is literally expensive. You may find yourself talking to someone who's making an hour in basic pay.

EXAMPLE OF AN INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW:

Situation:

The interviewer is an entry level copywriter, qualified in commercial writing. The career path is an advertising career, with his own advertising agency as the eventual goal.

Internships are regularly offered by a large New York advertising agency. The internship involves a 12 month stint with the firm, learning the business, and getting a lot of valuable exposure to a major league advertiser.

The agency has agreed to an informational interview, and the manager of the copy department, who oversights the internships, is the interviewee.

The agency has allowed a half hour interview. There are five questions.

Questions:

1. I'm trying to get started as a copywriter, and the ultimate goal is my own agency. What should I do?

This question tells the interviewee what the goals are. That, for a professional, is most of the story, and they can take the cue from that. The answer will be about the career path, and how people develop their careers in the industry.

2. My qualifications are (A,B,C,D). What do employers look for, when assessing qualifications for copywriters?

This is a very necessary question. Qualifications are important, but employers do pick and choose. The answer will have to be about what this particular employer wants, but it will also deal with the industry standards, which are crucially important. Most copywriters in New York have degrees.

3. How do I make myself competitive for internships as a copywriter, when I'm just starting at entry level?

Another vitally important question, because entry level is always difficult, and getting started can be a particularly difficult process. The employer can explain how they pick who gets their intern positions, which is exactly what the interviewer needs to know.

4. What extra study or other things can I do, to get an internship?

This question isn't quite as important as the previous questions, but it is important. Extra skills and qualifications do matter, and the employer could suggest useful ideas, and give a new perspective on the situation.

5. Can you outline a career path after completing an internship?

This is a guidance question, open ended, not specific information, but it allows the interviewee to provide a lot of information across a wide spectrum. The answer will probably be in the form of materials showing the success of interns with the agency, career bios for staff, and other information which pins down the career tracks in the industry.

ASKING QUESTIONS AND GETTING ANSWERS

You'll notice that all these questions are:

  • Strictly on the topic.
  • Straightforward questions.
  • Inside the time frame.
  • Asked in order of priority.
  • Related to the career path and objectives.

Informational interviews are another topic where the unrestrained brilliance of the employment experts is thriving, verbose as ever.

There are literally hundreds of questions on some sites regarding informational interviews.

Some of them are pretty sad:

Everything from What sort of a career can I expect working in this industry? to How did you enter this career? to What is your job like?

These are supposed to be questions which are taken seriously by business professionals who've stopped work to answer them.

Frankly, nobody's got time for questions like that.

Nor have you, unless you're five years old.

Never mind the theories, stick to the main game.