Informational interviews provide one avenue for learning about a business, developing professional relationships and sharing ideas.  We initiate informational interviews as job seekers, entrepreneurs and researchers to tap the experience and knowledge of others. As with job interviews, successful informational interviews rely on preparation and practice. How?

  1. Write an interview guide. This is the single most valuable way to prepare. Whether 30 minutes in person or 15 minutes by phone, know what you are going to ask to make the most of the time available. When developing your guide, ask yourself “What do I hope to learn in this interview from this person?” Defining the purpose of the interview helps you order and phrase the questions correctly.
  2. Start with general questions and move to specifics. Begin with general questions about the industry, for example, before getting specific about the person’s responsibilities or research.
  3. Learn about the interviewee prior to the interview. Know the person’s background and education. The interviewee is doing you a favor by setting aside time to meet with you; it is your job to be prepared.
  4. Do not exceed your requested time. However, be prepared to stay longer if the person is willing.
  5. Dress as if it were a job interview. First impressions always matter. Get to your appointment a few minutes early and be courteous to everyone.
  6. Ask open-ended questions which promote a discussion. Listen and guide.  And don’t interrupt; you will gather more information and stories.  Like I learned while counseling students in college, the greatest gift is often a sympathetic ear.  Work through the history, and the issues will come out.
  7. Avoid body language that indicates a lack of interest. This includes folding or crossing arms, slouching, or looking around the room. Turn off that cell phone and don’t check it. Take notes, and keep the pen moving.
  8. Share. Productive informational interviews often include active two-way exchanges and dialogues.
  9. Say “thank you.” Write a brief note which restates your appreciation for this person’s time.  State how the interview helped you move forward in your research or career development.

Finally, when planning informational interviews, consider talking to a range of individuals. Interesting and insightful information often comes from salesmen, administrative staff and customer service technicians. They have direct customer and product contact and may know where businesses struggle. And direct communication with those on the inside gives us insight and a feel for the real issues in a business or industry.