Want to have a conversation with someone who has your dream job? Good idea. Here’s what you need to know about reaching out, plus tips for getting the most out of the interview.
What is an informational interview?
Simply put, they are a low-level way of finding out what it’s like to work somewhere.
What’s the point of them?
Informational interviews are an excellent networking opportunity because they connect you with people doing what you want to do. On top of that, they’ll help you find out more about your desired career and obtain advice on how to begin your own path. Essentially, your goal as the conductor of these interviews is to be a sponge, absorbing as much knowledge as possible.
There is power in informational interviews. They’ve brought me useful suggestions for scoring internships and have given me more confidence in the kind of journalist I aspire to be.
When I began my master’s program this year, I was completely new to the field of journalism. Based on my background in creative writing, I knew that I loved to write upbeat, entertaining stories. However, I was afraid to admit that I wanted to pursue a job in lifestyle journalism.
Thanks to my reporting professor’s encouragement to do informational interviews, I’ve gotten to talk with women who write the kinds of stories I want to tell, which has shown me that a career in lifestyle journalism can be meaningful and fulfilling.
Through my interviews with Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, a freelancer who recently published a lifestyle piece in the New York Times, as well as E! News’ Jessie Rae Price, I’ve seen that what I want to do is a legitimate career path. After getting advice from successful women and hearing about their journeys, I now understand that I don’t have to cover the traditional “hard” news that doesn’t interest me. Most importantly, I can move forward in journalism with a confidence in myself that I didn’t have prior to conducting these informational interviews.
So, informational interviews are important.
Here’s how to set one up:
- Be confident and positive. I’m very introverted, so I understand why reaching out to people that you don’t know can be scary. Asking for an interview can be even more intimidating. Over time, I’ve found that most people are happy to help. Oftentimes, they feel flattered that someone is seeking them out for advice. Remember that the worst thing someone can say is “no.” Ultimately, the more you press send, the easier this process will get.
- Aim high. If there is someone whose work you admire, but you think they’re too big of a deal to ever get back with you, GO FOR IT. For example, on a whim, I messaged my favorite (very artistic) YouTuber, Haley Raines, via Instagram for an interview and was shocked when she responded the same day and said yes. You’ll be surprised that even a big name in the industry you hope to enter might be willing to take time out of their day to talk to you.
- Thoughtfully craft the message. Once you’ve done research and have found a person doing the kind of work you want to do (LinkedIn is a great source for this), it’s time to send the initial email. The key is to be clear and concise. Briefly describe who you are, explain why you’re asking for their time, and tell them that it will only be a 15 minute conversation. Usually, they’ll run longer than that, but people are more likely to say yes when they know the talk will be short. Other options for making contact: phone calls, Instagram / Facebook / Twitter direct messages. No matter how you do it, always be polite yet professional.
An example of a sincere, straightforward email:
Good morning, Kate,
My name’s Elizabeth. I’m a freelance journalist and a graduate student at the University of Oregon. My goal is to be a lifestyle journalist and the work you produce for The Ringer inspires me.
I’d like to set up a time within the next week to have a 15-minute conversation with you. I’m eager to hear about your career and any advice you have for upcoming, pop-culture-loving journalists, like myself.
Please let me know when you are free. I look forward to hearing back from you.
Congrats, you landed an informational interview!
Here’s 5 pointers to help you get the most out of it:
- Do your homework beforehand. It will be easy for your interviewee to tell if you’ve done your research or not. Show them that you care about what they have to say by taking the time to prep for the interview. Read their latest work, engage with their LinkedIn or online portfolio, and look through their social media.
- Prepare questions. By having knowledge of who this person is and what they do, you’ll be able to make a list of insightful questions and, in turn, receive fruitful answers. When coming up with questions, ask yourself — What is it that I most want to get out of this conversation? Whatever pops in your mind, ask that first. Your time is limited with this person, so organize your questions by putting the most important ones at the top.
- What path did you take to get this job?
- What does a typical day look like for you?
- What are your main responsibilities in this position?
- What about this job has surprised you?
- What advice would you give to your younger self before getting into this career?
- Use Zoom etiquette. Many informational interviews are happening on Zoom rather than coffee shops these days because of COVID-19. Although you’ll most likely be conducting yours in the comfort of your own home, it’s still important to be professional. Be on time. Sit up in your chair. Dress appropriately — solid, darker colors work best at keeping the other person focused on your face. Look them in the eye, a.k.a. the little dot at the top of your screen. By doing all of these little things, your interviewee will know that you appreciate their time and what they have to say.
- Listen. Your job in this interview is to learn. Once you ask a question, stay quiet and truly listen to what they are saying. If you pay close attention, you’ll probably hear them mention something that’s not on your list of questions, but that you’d like to know more about. It’s okay if you don’t get to every question that you prepared. By attentively listening to what they say, doors to valuable information will open that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about otherwise. Don’t feel the need to fill every silence, as those spaces will allow the person time to think and provide you with thorough answers.
- Say "thank you." At the end, be sure to thank them for their time. They are doing this informational interview out of kindness, so it’s vital that you return the favor by expressing your appreciation. Also, be sure to ask if there’s anyone else you should reach out to. Asking this question will possibly connect you with other people in the field. Soon after the interview, send a follow-up email to thank them again and to reference things they said that stood out to you. Your gratitude and attention to detail will show this person that helping you was a valuable use of their time.
Following these tips will result in an effective informational interview that leaves you feeling more knowledgeable about your future career. These conversations are a prime chance for you to learn all that you can, so reach out to as many people as possible. Don’t feel discouraged if some say no, as you will connect with the people that you are meant to gain knowledge from.
This article was originally published on Elizabeth Groening's Medium page. It was republished with permission.