Nine tips for successful informational interviews

Have you ever been on an informational interview?

If you haven’t heard of them before, an informational interview is a meeting with someone who’s already in an organization, field or industry that you’d like to get into, which doesn’t relate directly to a job opening. It’s an opportunity for you to learn, grow your network and get your foot in the door.

Informational interviews can help improve your career prospects. They’re especially helpful when you graduate or if you’re starting out in a new field. In fact, the effectiveness of informational interviews has been described as “engineered nepotism”. Essentially, if you don’t have an existing strong personal connection, an informational interview can have the potential to result in one.

Informational interviews have benefited my career. My first job at a PR agency was the eventual result of an informational interview with a VP there. We were put in touch through connections in our networks, so I didn’t know her personally before the meeting. That said, I diligently prepared for the meeting and it was a success.

That’s why, when a role became available at my level at the agency a month after the informational interview, the person I met with contacted me. She thought I could be a good fit based on what she learned about me in the informational interview. As I had already dipped my toe by meeting with her and learning about the agency, I was immediately engaged. So, we met again to discuss the role and I was interviewed by other senior members of the organization. As a result, the role was a great fit for me, and I was a great fit for the team.

This experience has made me believe in the power of informational interviews. Since, I’ve continued to participate in them, both as interviewer and interviewee. Based on what I’ve learned, I have some tips for acing informational interviews as your start off in your career:

Tip 1: Prepare as you would for a job interview – Would you ever go to a job interview without Googling the company and person you’re meeting with? Informational interviews should be treated the same way. In addition to reviewing the company’s website, check out the social channels of and recent news articles about the company, its leaders, its brands and the person you’re meeting with. Review your contact’s LinkedIn profile and consider connecting with them before or after the meeting. Show you’re really on-the-ball by weaving-in what you learned in your research during your conversation, or even print out and bring an article or two.

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Tip 2: Determine an objective – Understand what you hope to get out of your informational interview. Keep your objective(s) top-of-mind, and even mention them to the interviewee either before or early in the interview. For example, if you’re emailing the contact in advance, you could say, “I look forward to meeting with you to learn about your career path and the trends and opportunities you see in the industry,” if that’s what your objectives are. This will help the interview subject prepare, and as a result, you’ll get more from the meeting.

Tip 3: Prepare a list of questions – Make a list of questions to address anything you’re curious about – the person’s career path, something you learned when researching their organization, industry trends, their organization’s culture or their organization’s open positions (if they’re not posted online). Write the questions down in your notebook (see point 5, below) or print the list. Refer to them during the interview to demonstrate your preparedness and engagement.

Tip 4: Get ready to share a bit about yourself – Ideally, the interview should focus on the person you’re meeting with. However, it would be helpful for the interviewee to know a bit about you so that they have context when sharing information or advice. Rehearse a summary, also called an “elevator pitch”, about yourself in advance. Make sure it’s short, concise and clear. Learn how to craft an elevator pitch here.

Tip 5: Make notes – Bring a notebook and pen and jot down important things that your interview subject says. Write down questions that arise when they’re speaking and ask them later to avoid interrupting them. Even if you’re a digital record-keeper, writing down notes demonstrates to the speaker that you’re fully engaged. Making notes on a smartphone, tablet or laptop can have the opposite effect. (Still not convinced to write in a notebook? Richard Branson has a compelling pitch for using them!)

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Tip 6: Dress to impress – First impressions count. But, before you put on a tailored suit for an informational interview, keep in mind that in recent years, attire for job interviews and other professional meetings has changed, just as how people dress in the workplace has evolved. A suit is great, but not always necessary (hello, suit separates!). As part of your research, learn about the culture and dress code of the organization and industry of the interview subject to ensure your attire is appropriate. However, even if the organization’s dress code is very causal on a day-to-day basis, you should dress more formally to convey your seriousness and professionalism. Learn more about dressing for a job interview here.

Tip 7: Find an appropriate venue and time – Allow the interview subject to share their preferences for when and where they’d like to meet. Encourage a venue that’s close to their workplace to minimize their time away from work. Your interview subject might suggest a meeting room at their office. Or, coffee shops or casual cafés are usually good bets, but make sure you can get a table at the meeting time; you might even want to arrive early to secure seats. Don’t order drinks or food in advance, and offer to pay if you’re the one who called the meeting (although if you’re a student or if it’s early in your career, the interview subject may politely decline your offer!).

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Tip 8: Be mindful of time – Try to arrive early, and ensure the meeting ends on time. This shows that you respect the interview subject’s time, that you’re able to manage time effectively, and that you understand they have other priorities in their schedule.

Tip 9: Send a thank-you note – An email or a card sent in the mail that expresses your appreciation is a thoughtful way to follow-up on the interview. Also, if someone introduced you, take the time to send them a short email to share that the interview occurred and to thank them for the connection.

I’ll finish up with a disclaimer. The result of my informational interview scenario, described above, was ideal for me at that time because I was starting out in my career and looking for a job at the same time a position became available. However, not every informational interview will result in a job offer. (And, sometimes, that’s not your objective!)

You might not be able to anticipate how participating in an informational interview now can benefit you down the road. Outcomes can include being approached regarding a job opportunity, increasing your technical knowledge, absorbing perspective based on the interview subject’s experience and gaining connections to the interviewee’s network.

What other tips do you have for making the most of an informational interview? Share in the comments below!

 

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Interview: PR pro Alanna Fallis shares career transition advice 

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I recently sat down with Alanna Fallis (@lanifallis), a communications professional who has just recently made a move in her career.  Below is a summary of our interview, in which, Alanna highlights how taking on new challenges and building her network has allowed her to grow in her career, as well as some advice for others who are considering a transition into a new role.

1. Tell me a bit about your education and career path so far.

I completed my undergraduate degree in Communications Studies at York University in 2011. I loved the smaller fourth year tutorial courses I took and it increased my interest in communication theory.  Thus, I felt encouraged to continue learning and exploring, and applied to graduate school programs in Ontario.

Between third year and fourth year undergrad I did a summer placement at GCI Group, a mid-size public relations (PR) agency in Toronto, where I was introduced to the PR industry. I didn’t know quite what I was getting myself into, but enjoyed every minute of it. At first, when I overheard PR jargon in the office I had to Google it at my desk later in order to keep up with the team. Over time, I thrived in the role, and loved participating in new business brainstorms and learning the media databases used to track coverage.

Before attending Ryerson University for post-graduate studies in 2011, I completed another summer internship with GCI Group. The work was tougher and projects were bigger, which was great, as it meant they trusted me more! I had gained confidence during the placement that turned into a steady growth period personally and professionally. I was able to make media calls, write pitches and send clients media monitoring reports. My career path became clear to me, I would work in an agency after graduating Ryerson as I truly felt it was a place that I could learn and grow, constantly.

I then completed Ryerson’s Professional Communication Master’s degree program in 2012. This was a fantastic experience full of combined professional and theoretical learning.

After graduating, I returned to GCI Group as an Account Coordinator. Daily interactions with bloggers and writing pitches became second nature. I took advantage of every opportunity to take on new tasks, even if they were above my level and beyond my job description. I tried to prescribe my role based on the work being done above me; therefore, dismissing what level my job title indicated I should be at, and working at the level of the job title I wanted to move into. This proved to be beneficial for my growth, as I received a promotion to the Consultant role. Several peers of mine were instrumental in my growth, allowing me to face challenges head-on and learn new skill sets.

Because of this fantastic experience, I was able to explore a new opportunity at Ryerson University in a communications and event management role, where I would be directly involved in the branding and strategic communication planning in the Dean’s office in the Faculty of Arts. The new adventure started in July 2014 and I anticipate it will be full of continuous learning experiences and professional growth opportunities.

2. Transitioning from one job to another can be nerve-wracking for some people.  What tips would you give to make the move easier?

Never stop learning, exploring or experimenting and be willing to share your knowledge from your previous experience with the team at the new organization. I also think that an open-mind and the eagerness to try new things can help to smooth the transition.

3. Would you say relationships are important in helping to shape your career path?

Indeed. Networks are a key element of shaping one’s career. Some relationships can veer your career towards a path they may not have considered otherwise. Relationships are a key resource in the “career toolkit”.

4. What advice would you give for expanding your network and professional relationships?

Be yourself and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there, for example, connect with former colleagues, or cold-email people you’ve never worked with before. In my experience, more times than not, there is someone willing to help at the other end of the email you’re sending, so don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Also, leverage your strong relationships and introduce people in your network to each other. For example, if Bob at Bell wants to know Roberta at Rogers, offer an introduction and help them build their professional relationships. Chances are it will likely help you expand your network too!

 

 

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Do you need to provide a leave-behind of the work in your portfolio?

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Is your portfolio still in hardcopy format? Or, are bringing an electronic version of your portfolio to job interviews?

If you’re using a tablet to display your professional portfolio, a brief leave-behind is a memorable way to share your top, most relevant samples at a meeting with a client or employer.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo credit: Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Should I have a hardcopy or digital version of my portfolio?

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A professional portfolio helps to showcase your best work with a networking contact or potential employer. Whether you’re a communications specialist, writer, graphic designer or photographer, a portfolio allows you to demonstrate your expertise and skills with strategically selected work samples.

When I was a budding PR professional early in my career, I poured over my portfolio. I scrutinized and selected different examples of my work on many different types of projects, such as written news releases, social media projects and events to ensure my expertise and experience shined through. I combed through, scanned and formatted letters of reference and notes on my past performance to complement these samples with third-party references.

Then, I spent hours printing and compiling the work samples on high-quality paper, putting them all into a binder with customized tabs and plastic page covers. The finished product was in a large binder that weighed a ton and required constant maintenance to keep it relevant.

However, all this was before tablets were mainstream. A tablet with a nine-inch display is about the size of paper, but looks much more sophisticated.

The tablet has made the evolution from a hardcopy to a digital version of a portfolio possible. Thankfully, showcasing your work on a tablet can save a communications professional the trouble of printing materials and keeping up a binder. In an interview or meeting, using this technology in an innovative way by flipping through polished work samples can reflect positively on your professionalism, potentially having a positive impact on the image you put forward overall.

What are your thoughts on digital portfolios? Would you bring a digital version of a portfolio to an interview in other industries than the communications industry?