We all know two things about informational interviews: They’re great for learning about an industry or company, and they work best as conversations.
But what we may not fully grasp is the power of informational interviews as the best time we have to tell an authentic story.
An informational interview allows for what novelist James McPherson calls “elbow room,” which means, in this instance, the latitude to delve into the twists and turns of career and life without being confined to answer a set list of questions. That freedom gives job seekers a way to develop long-lasting connections and to improve interviewing skills.
We do this kind of interviewing all the time. When I asked a neighbor to tell me about writing for the local paper, a colleague to tell me about getting her MA over lunch, and a boss to share her experience of getting a Ph.D, I didn’t think of this as informational interviewing because it was spontaneous and arose out of curiosity. But informational meetings can be just as organic, and can inform not only a career move, but any project or development issue that interests you.
Here are the characteristics of these kind of interviews:
- Exploratory conversations. A conversation is exactly what you want this interview to become. Think of how we most readily get to know people; it’s not through asking and answering a list of questions, but through conversation and telling stories. You and the person you are talking with–your conversation partner– won’t always click and a conversation won’t always develop. But where you can, set your script aside and treat the meeting as a conversation you might have with a new friend over coffee. Questions will occur that you would never have thought to include on your list.
- Transparency. Because your partner is not speaking for a larger organization and has no stake in winning you over, he or she is likely to be authentic about the rewards, challenges, and uncertainties of the job or company. Having a few informational talks can help you avoid making choices that aren’t a fit.
- Your contribution. Regardless of your level of experience, remember that you bring something valuable to the table in informational meetings. Remember that everyone likes to be heard. By asking exploratory questions and treating the exchange as a conversation, you allow the other person to look at work with a fresh perspective. I once watched a former boss, who was chronically stressed and overwhelmed, calm down and take a step back during an informational interview with a student and describe the honor and fulfillment she got from doing her job–things I had never heard her say before.
- Future mentors. As in any situation, a useful and friendly discussion fosters good will and a desire to help on both sides. Assuming that the conversation was positive, this person will almost certainly be left with warm feelings toward you and the desire to see you succeed. If you request to stay in touch and your partner agrees, this person can function as a great sounding board and offer practical, unbiased advice and support.
Set the tone. Obviously a job interview cannot be as chatty as an informational one, and the stories you share will need to be directly relevant to the job. Still, you should maintain the same warm, engaged tone and listening ear you cultivated during the informational chat, because interviewers will respond favorably.