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How to Get the Most Out of an Informational Interview

Feb. 26, 2016 Harvard Business Review

When you’re looking for a job or exploring a new career path, it’s smart to go out on informational interviews. But what should you say when you’re actually in one? Which questions will help you gain the most information? Are there any topics you should avoid? And how should you ask for more help if you need it?

What the Experts Say
“Informational interviews are essential to helping you find out more about the type of industry, company, or role you’re interested in,” says Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking“You may think you already know all about a certain position, but speaking to someone directly gives you the opportunity to test your assumptions.” John Lees, UK-based career strategist and author of The Success Code, agrees. Informational interviews “give you exposure — a way to get yourself known in the hidden job market,” he says. “The visibility may put you straight onto a short list, even if a job isn’t advertised.” They can also be a great boost to your self-esteem. “You get to wear smart business clothes and visit places of work, which maintains your confidence levels in a job search,” he explains. So whether you’re actively trying to change roles or just exploring different professional paths, here are some tips on how to make the most of an informational interview.

Prepare and practice
Informational interviews are, according to Clark, “a safe environment to ask questions.” But this doesn’t mean you should go in cold. After all, your goal is to come across in a way that inspires others to help you. So, do your homework. Study up on industry lingo. Learn who the biggest players are. Be able to talk about the most important trends. You don’t want to waste your expert’s time asking Google-able questions. “You will come across as a more serious candidate if you are familiar with the jargon and vocabulary,” says Clark.  Lees concurs. “Showing that you’ve done your background research plants the idea of credibility in the other person’s mind,” he says. Work on your listening and conversation skills, too. Lees suggests that you practice “asking great questions and conveying memorable energy” with “people who are easy to talk to — like your family, your friends, and friends of friends.”

Keep your introduction short
“What frustrates busy people is when they agree to an informational interview, then the person seeking advice spends 15 minutes talking about himself and his job search” instead of learning from them, says Lees. This is not a venue to practice your elevator pitch; it’s a place to “absorb information and find stuff out.” Clark suggests preparing a “brief, succinct explanation about yourself” that you can recite in three minutes max:  “Here’s my background, here’s what I’m thinking, and I’d like your feedback.” People can’t help you unless they understand what you’re looking for, but this part of the conversation should be brief.

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