Probably the most powerful tool a professional can have in their toolkit, the informational interview is designed specifically to engage and include an expert or key influencer in your quest. There are many uses for an informational interview including to:
- Introduce yourself to a new contact,
- familiarize yourself with a new topic/industry, or
- test and confirm business concept or idea before you have invested heavily in it.
A welcome outcome of many interviews is increased connections that will promote your idea and the expansion of concept dimensions, creating an even better idea, product or service. There is always a purpose for an informational interview… it is not about just grabbing coffee and shooting the breeze.
It’s a conversation
Although the purpose of an informational interview is to obtain as much information from your subject in 20 minutes, it is important to treat the interview like a conversation, not an interrogation. Follow-up gently with pertinent questions during the discussion. Never talk for more than 3 minutes without engaging your interview subject.
The focus of the interview is to allow you to demonstrate your well-developed listening skills. Always listen to the answer your interview subject gives and ask follow-up questions that demonstrate you understanding and connection with the ideas.
Active listening engages all senses. As you take in and process the information you are receiving, remember to nod your head appreciatively to signal that this is a productive path for the conversation. Listen for key, relevant information and references. Take the opportunity to ask probing questions which will afford deeper insight or details. Take note of the points your interview subject makes which are of particular interest to you.
Informational Interview Structure
The structure of an informational interview is standard. It contains a 1) Set Up, 2) the Interview with specific questions, 3) a Wrap-up.
Set up interview appointments with two or three individuals who share areas of genuine interest with you. The objective for you is to acknowledge their expertise, and to obtain their agreement to be interviewed. It is very important that you also recognize how busy they might be. When you send your introductory note, be sure to be clear about why you desire the meeting, the goal, and provide some suggested times/dates for the discussion. Example first contact …
I’ve been referred to you by [insert name of colleague/contact]. May I ask for 20 minutes of your advice & counsel? I’m not looking for a job or trying to sell you anything. I am interested in speaking with you briefly about [insert topic] because I understand that you [insert why you want to speak with that particular person].
Could we set up a time that is convenient for you? I suggest [insert 1 or 2 dates/times], but if these are not convenient, please let me know what works for your schedule.
Always open the interview by thanking the subject for their time, reminding them about how you came to be speaking with them (ref: Set Up note). Say something like:
Thank you for your time. Your colleague [insert name], mentioned that it might be advantageous for us to have a conversation. I would appreciate getting your advice and counsel on [insert topic].
Use Three Key Questions
Tip: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is when someone asks for 20 minutes of an expert’s time and then think that they can ask 20 questions in that time. Plan 3 main, and 2 or 3 back up questions.
- Tell them about yourself: “May I take 2 minutes to tell you who I am?” [and why I’m here to seek your advice & counsel?]
- Provide 2 or 3 prepared (& practiced) messages within two minutes. They should show how your interest is relevant to their areas of knowledge & the discussion and why you are looking for information about the topic.
- Ask a question that is relevant to the topic (eg, about their background or expertise).
- “Could you tell me more about your background & how you came to be here? or “How did you come to be doing what you are doing now?” (or .. hold this position, be an expert in this field, etc.)
- Ask a ‘big question’ that gets to the point of your meeting.
- “What are the big issues, challenges or risks with [the topic under discussion]?” or “What is your assessment of what is happening currently?” or “Any insight on what will happen next… in the coming years?”
Take notes during the interview to capture the most important points.
Approaching the 20-minute mark, say something like: “We are approaching our 20-minute mark.’ and observe their reaction. They may often say that they have a bit more time. Whether they are open to continuing or not, you should have the main information you came for within the required time and wrap up quite close to the agreed end time. By wrapping up on time, you signal that you know how valuable their time is and, in most cases, especially if you’ve done everything correctly, you will be welcome to reconnect in the future.
To close, thank them for their time, summarise 2 or 3 of the most important points and ask if they would be ok with a written follow up if you think of other questions or need clarification of something they mentioned. As well, ask them if they know of anyone else that you should interview. Finally, offer to provide an update on your progress if they are interested.
Remember to send a thank you note within 48 hours of the interview. List some of your next steps, any important comments you took to heart and thank them again for their time.
Use this handy planning sheet to organise your thoughts.