This is a bit outside the realm of my usual tips on how to get past internal blocks, but a number of clients have needed to use informational interviewing in the past few months. I haven’t been able to find a good, comprehensive article to send them to in order to learn the nuts and bolts of conducting an informational interviewing campaign, so I thought I would set out the seven steps here.

hand shakeFirst, why would you want to do informational interviewing? The most obvious answer is that it will get you quick information about a career, a company, or an industry, among other things. A slightly less well-known quality of informational interviewing is that it is perhaps the quickest way to actually get a job if your Uncle Charley isn’t offering you a perfect position in his company right now. It tends to be a much better way of landing a job than simply responding to job postings. Finally, with some tweaking, entrepreneurs can use the same interviewing format to mine for insight into what potential customers need so they go down fewer blind alleys and can create and offer exactly what customers will pay for.

Here I’ll give you the basic 7-step approach to creating an informational interviewing campaign in order to get a job. Please adjust the details to fit your situation.

Step 1: Figure Out What You Want To Get Out of Your Informational Interviewing

Determine what you want to accomplish with your campaign. Find out what a profession is like? Get pointers on the best paths to a certain type of job? Figure out what kind of job would suit you best in a certain company or industry? Find out what the best companies are to work for in an area? Get a position in a specific field? You probably already know what you want, but if you don’t then take some time to set your goal before jumping into the process. Otherwise you will waste a lot of your and other people’s time.

Step 2: Contact People You Know Who Might Have Useful Contacts

Remember the concept of Six Degrees of Separation. No, not the movie. This is the idea that anyone can get to anyone else in the world simply by going through someone they know, who knows someone, who knows someone, who…knows Kevin Bacon. In six connections or less. This is the powerful concept you use when you are doing informational interviewing.

So think about who you know who might have some sort of connection to what you are looking for. Perhaps Cousin Janine has a friend whose previous career is the one you want to explore. That friend can not only tell you about her experience, she probably knows a number of people who still do that kind of work, or manage people who do that kind of work. Then there’s Pete, who you used to work for, who has moved into the industry you think you want to get into. Gather a list of all your contacts—family, friends, work acquaintances, etc.—who you guess might have those connections you are looking for.

Now it’s time to contact your contacts. Give them the background. “I’m thinking of changing jobs and I want to know more about how to get into the movie industry” or “I think I want to work for Company K and want to find out what it’s like there” or “I want to run a mortgage fund.” Then ask them who they know who might be able to give you some information about that.

Assure your contacts that you are not going to ask the people they refer you to to give you a job. You just want information at this time. This is important. It allows them to give you names they might be hesitant to disclose if they thought you were going to hit up someone important to them for a job.

When they suggest someone for you to talk to, get the contact information of the person. In the past it was better to send a snail mail letter introducing yourself, and I still think that is preferable to sending off an email that might get blocked by a spam filter. Plus, it just looks more impressive. However, if your friend doesn’t know any way to reach them but by email, take what you can get. Be a little proactive here, though. You can usually find mailing addresses to organizations online, so if your friend knows the company they work for, go look it up.

Ideally, your friend will send an introduction for you to their connection (an email, a phone call, whatever), but since you’re asking a favor here don’t push it. Still, be sure to ask your friend for permission to use their name when you contact the person they suggest.

Step 3: Send a Letter Introducing Yourself

Now you want to send a letter (or email, if that’s all you’ve got) introducing yourself, saying “So-and-so suggested I talk with you,” and telling them what you would like to talk with them about. It is very important in this letter that you include a sentence to the effect that “I’m not asking you for a job.” If you don’t make that clear, the person is likely to tell you they are not hiring right now and shut you down before you’ve even begun.

Finish the letter with a sentence that you will call them next Thursday (or whatever day makes sense) to see if there is a time that you can talk.

Step 4: Call the Person to Set Up a Meeting

On the day you said you would call them in your letter, call them. Introduce yourself along the lines of “Hello, I’m Nancy Linnerooth. I’m hoping to set up a time to talk with you about what it takes to become an actuary in the reinsurance field. So-and-so suggested that I talk to you. I hope you got my letter.”

If necessary—for example, if they say “We’re not hiring right now, but I’ll put your resume on file”—jump in with the important point that “I’m not asking you for a job. What I’m looking for is some information right now.” Say this even if you believe you would love to work for this company and desperately need a job right now. For one thing, it is actually true. If it turned out that one of the job requirements was something you found morally or ethically wrong, like drowning a puppy every day, you probably wouldn’t take it. In addition, you want to build a relationship with this person, who may be able to connect you with someone who is hiring in another company.

Schedule a time when you can ask them your questions. Assure them you are only looking for 20 to 30 minutes of their time, less if that is too much for them. Sometimes the person you are calling will tell you they have a few minutes right now to talk. Don’t get drawn in to having your informational interview on this introductory call. It tends not to get you what you need. Have something else you have to do, but offer to make it as convenient for them as possible to meet next week. Can you take them out for coffee at a convenient time? Would they like to meet at their office? If a phone call late in the day makes the most sense for them, do that. Of course, if they are located in another city, arrange for a phone call at any time that works for them. Make it easy for them to say yes.

Step 5: Prepare a List of Questions

Yes I mean write out some questions to take in to the interview with you. Feel free to go off your list if you are on a roll in the actual interview. And don’t be a robot, simply reading your questions one by one. But have them handy to check during the interview to make sure you didn’t miss anything important, or if you reach an awkward pause in the conversation.

You want to have questions that you care about the answer to here that are relevant to your goals in your campaign, not questions you think you are supposed to ask or that a journalist would ask. Of course, make sure the questions are diplomatic. Don’t ask someone how they feel working at such a menial job, or for such a lousy company. But you would never ask something like that anyway, would you?

Here’s the very last question on your list, and the one you must get answered before you leave the interview: “Who else do you know who I could talk to?” Be sure to have the follow-up questions “What is their contact information” and “Can I use your name when I contact them?”

Step 6: The Interview Itself

I hope by now I’ve gotten through to you the importance of letting the person you are going to talk to know that you are not asking them for a job. And you are not going to ask them for a job! But you are going to present yourself as someone who they could see hiring or sending down the hall to the hiring manager’s office, or recommending to their friend in another company. So dress as if it were a job interview. Bring a copy of your up-to-date resume in case they ask for it. Get there 10 minutes early. If it is by phone, call promptly at the time you agreed to.

Since this is an informational interview, you will do more of the leading of the conversation than you might in a job interview. Ask the questions you want to get answered. Follow threads that are interesting to you. Don’t worry that you are imposing on this person—people like to help and they like to talk about what they know and what they do, even if they hate their job.

However, you must be respectful of their time and be careful to end the interview by or before the time you both set. If the conversation is going swimmingly and you would like to ask a few more questions, you can ask if they could meet a few minutes longer. But use this option verrrrry sparingly. One of the things you are doing here is proving that you are trustworthy and will do what you say, so that they will feel comfortable referring you to people in their network.

Which reminds me: Don’t finish the interview without getting your last question answered. You remember, the one about who else they know who you can talk to? Again, assure them that you will not ask their contact for a job. Since you haven’t asked them for a job, and you have been professional and kept your word, they should feel more comfortable sharing their network with you. This is how you build your informational interviewing network.

You also want to ask if it is okay to keep them updated on how your informational interviewing is going. Usually people are happy to agree since they feel somewhat invested in your success once they’ve talked with you. Again, be respectful of their time and don’t inundate them with weekly updates. However, you can send them an email with new information on occasion, like you’ve narrowed your focus to a specific type of position, or you want to explore a fascinating field you found out about through your interviewing. You can invite them to share any further information they might have, or contacts they have, or even job openings they’ve heard of, in response to this change. And of course everyone wants to hear when you have accepted an offer for a position you are excited about.

Step 7: Send a Written Thank You

Don’t forget your manners. The same day you’ve had an interview, send the person you interviewed with an email thanking them for their time and help. Follow that up with a more detailed thank you letter mentioning something specific from your conversation (letting them know you were actually listening!) and confirming that you will contact the person(s) they recommended to you.

Now go back to Step 3, sending a letter to the person who was recommended to you in the last interview. Go through the steps with that person. Sometimes you will have more than one person to contact. To a certain extent you can follow up at your own pace, but don’t let it stretch out too long as you don’t want to wait two months until the referrer forgets who you are. If you are in a real hurry, simply start and follow through on as many references as you can, sending out letters the same day you get referrals.

Eventually, someone you are talking with will say “You know, you would be perfect for a job opening up next month. Let me introduce you to the CTO” or “My friend in X Corp is looking for someone with your background. You should really get in touch with him.” And that is the way many, many positions are filled. It really is who you know.

Informational Interviewing For Entrepreneurs

If you are an entrepreneur, consider using a modified version of this approach to research what potential customers want so you can create new products and services that the market actually wants. Change “I’m not asking for a job” to “I’m not going to sell you anything. I’m just looking for information about what companies need.” Then don’t renege on the deal!

If you are talking to a potential customer, ask what their stumbling blocks in and around your field of expertise are, their bottlenecks, their pain points, whatever words make sense to you. Ask what they’ve tried, what has worked and what hasn’t. Ask them what they wish someone else would take off their plate. If you have an idea for a new offering, get their opinion on it.

Listen carefully. Take notes. This information is gold as the person is telling you what a customer would actually pay for. Certainly ask them if they know of anyone else who might be willing to talk with you about what might help them in their business. Ask them if they want to hear from you in the future about any new products or services you come out with that might address their issues. But if you already have something that would help them, tread carefully. You promised you wouldn’t try to sell them and, if you do, they might refuse to give you any of their contacts. Still, you can ask if they would like to hear at a later time about something you currently offer that might fit their needs.

There is a lot of information out on the internet about the do’s and don’ts of informational interviewing, like what questions to ask and how to ask for an interview with someone you have no connection to. Please delve further on any points that could be helpful to you. But this template should help get you started.

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