What Makes a Killer Informational Interview, From Someone Who's Done a Hell of a Lot of Them
Updated: Dec 20, 2018
This past Sunday, my husband and I had a conversation we've had many times before. "So who are you meeting with again?" he asked.
"Someone looking for advice," I said. "They reached out on LinkedIn."
"So a stranger, basically," he said. "Why did you agree to meet with them?"
"Because not too long ago, I was the stranger needing advice, and people agreed to meet with me."
Of course, I'm talking about getting ready to go on an informational interview, which in my husband's chosen profession of education, is a bit of a foreign concept. However, for those in networking-heavy careers such as advertising, informational interviews are (hopefully) a known-phenomenon — successful professionals volunteering their time to answer the questions of younger professionals.
I was amazed to find out this was a thing, back when I was a peon intern living in LA. And I was even more amazed when people actually agreed to meet with me over lunch or coffee. Important people, too. Writers of hit shows, VPs of top television networks. And I knew after this experience that I was obligated to return the favor, to offer my help when requested, should it ever be requested. To pass it on, if you will.
Years later, I'm (slightly) less of a peon and I'm living back in Boston and people do, surprisingly, request informational interviews with me — mostly college seniors or recent graduates looking to break into copywriting. And I truly do my best to meet with everyone who asks because I feel like it's my duty as a citizen of this gainfully employed world.
However, though I walk into these meet-ups happily and willingly, I'm also holding my breath. Because while I've talked with lots of bright, ambitious, interesting young people, I've also flat-out wasted my time. And in my experience, the difference between a killer informational interview and a definitely-not-killer one comes down to one (or several) of these things.
1) Did you offer to pay for my coffee?
Sometimes I'm too busy to meet in person and will offer to jump on the phone instead, but if I am giving up my free time to meet you for coffee, please offer to pay. It's not an ego thing; it's just a simple way to show appreciation that I, well, appreciate. And honestly, I'm not going to let you pay for my coffee. I'm going to insist on paying for yours. But any way you slice it, I didn't ask for this meeting, and though I don't necessarily mind giving up my time, there are also plenty of other things I would choose to do with those thirty minutes, if left to my own devices.
To me, this really seems common sense, but I'd say it only happens, oh, 30% of the time.
2) Did you have an elevator pitch?
Maybe the idea of giving an "elevator pitch" seems scary or overly salesman-y. But what I really mean is, "Do you have a plan for starting this conversation that takes the pressure off me?" I'm human. Sometimes even alarmingly so. Therefore, I'm just as prone to feeling awkward in quiet moments as you. Please don't make me feel pressured to start the conversation when I know nothing or next to nothing about you and your background. Offer me the information I need right up front in a clear, concise way.
3) Did you do your homework?
You certainly don't need to know every detail of my work history (and it'd be creepy if you did), but I'd like to know you know enough about me personally to feel like I'm not one of 100 random people you cold-emailed — that you reached out to me for a reason.
Again, this seems common sense, but I've had people ask me how to get a job as a graphic designer, to which I had to answer, "I'm not sure. I've never had a job as a graphic designer."
4) Did you have a clear goal?
... That's not trying to get a job from me. Though I have referred people for jobs after meeting them for an informational interview, that should never be the goal. But it's up to you as to what that other, non job-getting goal is. I agreed to meet with you because at the end of the day, I want to help people, and asking smart, specific questions helps me help you by clearly understanding your goal for this interaction.
5) Did you say thank you?
And I'm not talking about a written note (do they even make stamps anymore?). I'm just talking about saying thank you when we part ways and following up with another thank you via email. Seems common sense, but again, it ain't so common.