Like many other young nonprofit professionals, I have always been ambitious in my career aspirations. Post-graduation, however, I realized that book smarts, passion, and even diversified work experience in my field could only get a person so far. That is when I discovered the strategic importance of informational interviews.
An informational interview is a meeting between an “information holder” and “information seeker”. Initiated by the “information seeker”, the meeting typically concerns one’s interest in a specific field, organization, or position. While it is not a job interview, informational interviews can be an extrinsic tool in one’s future career goals while also being intrinsically motivated. The key benefits of informational interviews for young professionals include:
- building networking connections early in one’s career,
- developing soft skills (e.g. communication, time management, emotional intelligence), and
- learning unique career insights directly from industry professionals that cannot be found with a simple Google search (e.g. organizational culture, hiring procedures).
Therefore, informational interviews can potentially save emerging professionals years of time, energy, and money to either confirm, reject, and/or facilitate a desired career path.
The value of virtual informational interviews in a COVID-19 era
While many Canadians are living day-to-day in these uncertain times, for those who have the ability, informational interviews are a great career strategy during quarantine! Most notably, “information holders” and “seekers” tend to have more free time. Likewise, while many organizations are closed, the nonprofit sector is in overdrive helping our communities. Therefore, this is actually an industry with the potential to hire within the coming years! Finally, with an uncertain economy, building career connections as a precaution is a great proactive career strategy.
How to design an informational interview from start to finish
Step 1 – Find a purpose
In my experience, every “information holder” comments that passion is one of the most valuable traits in their field, especially in the nonprofit sector. Therefore, find a compelling, specific, and personal reason why you want to do an informational interview. This will be your interview’s foundation.
Step 2 – Reach out
Once you find your passion, research people and organizations in that industry. Google, LinkedIn, and company websites are your primary resources. After you determine a person that interests you, reach out. It doesn’t matter how far-reaching they seem, the answer is always no unless you ask! For instance, I have had the opportunity to speak to various senior managers and executives at organizations that I really admired just because I asked.
Here is an example email or LinkedIn message for initiating an informational interview with an industry professional:
Hello (their name),
My name is (your name) and I am an aspiring (your intended area of work). Similar to you, I have a passion for (area you are passionate about). I would love to learn more about your career and experience in a virtual informational interview.
Please let me know if you are interested and I would love to arrange a mutually agreeable time and format to connect further!
(link to your LinkedIn, website, etc.)
If the “information holder” is interested, begin coordinating the details. During COVID-19, I recommend using a phone (with headphones) versus Zoom for the interview. Phone interview benefits are that it reduces the pressure for both parties, it allows you to write notes without being forced to maintain eye contact, and it is less prone to technological difficulties. Of course, always ask what is easiest for them.
Step 3 – Research
Once you have confirmed a time and format with the “information holder”, be prepared for the interview. Learn about their career and organization. If available, even read or watch some professional resources they might have contributed to (e.g. articles or webinars). This step will not only help you feel more confident but is a sign of respect to the “information holder” that you aren’t entering the interview uninformed.
Step 4 – Designing a ‘script’
One tool I use in all my virtual informational interviews is a ‘script’. This is a 3-5 page printed document with all relevant information I know I will need during the interview. It also serves as a resource document for your records following the interview. The main information that should be included in everyone’s informational interview script includes:
Background Information about the “information holder’s” …
- career, and
- current organization.
Your Elevator Pitch
- This is a brief thirty seconds to one-minute explanation about your professional background, passion(s), and why you wanted to speak to the “information holder” specifically.
Informational Interview Questions
- Section 1: The “Information Holder’s” Career. Examples:
- Can you tell me a bit about your career path and what led you to the role you are in today?
- What is it like in your position? Can you elaborate on what the role entails, and what a typical day looks like pre and post COVID-19?
- What skills do you think are the most important for someone interested in a job like yours?
- What do you wish you had known when you first started out in your career?
- Section 2: Advice for Advancing Your Career. Examples:
- How does one typically come to work in positions similar to yours? Are positions usually advertised online, through recommendations, and do they look for a specific ‘type’ of applicant?
- What career advice might you have for someone aspiring to work in your industry and type of position?
- Do you have any recommendations for other professionals, companies, and/or resources I might explore going forward in my professional journey to learn more about this industry?
Be sure to leave space after each question to write down notable information.
Step 5 – The interview
On the day of the interview, find a quiet space and set up at least 15 minutes before your scheduled interview. Ideally, you should be sitting in a chair at a desk, dressed in non-lounge wear clothes, with enough room to have all your resources available in front of you.
When the “information holder” calls, take a deep breath! Beginning the call, feel free to engage in small talk before sharing your elevator pitch and purpose for the interview. Then transition into your questions. Be comfortable to deviate or add onto your predetermined questions based on the progression of the interview. The most rewarding information I’ve gained in interviews is from when we went ‘off script’!
Unless otherwise stated, plan for 30 minutes and keep a silent timer on. At the 30-minute mark, note the time to the “information holder” and politely ask if it’s okay to continue speaking (if you have more questions).
At the end of the interview, thank them and ask if it’s okay to reach out again if you ever need career advice in the future. Remember, informational interviews are an opportunity to learn, not to ask for a job. However, please feel comfortable to gently ask if it’s okay to send your resume over for them to keep on file if an applicable position opens up.
Step 6 – Follow up
You did it! Now what? Within 24 hours of the interview, send the “information holder” a follow up email. This is your opportunity to make one last impression. Be short and sweet. Thank them for their insight, and if agreed to during the interview, attach your resume. If not, leave a link to your LinkedIn or website. Here is an example follow up email:
Hi (their name),
It was so nice to virtually meet you! Thank you again for taking the time to speak with me about your experience in (their industry). You definitely confirmed that it is the field that I want to work in! Likewise, your advice and insight will be invaluable for my future career development.
I look forward to staying in touch as I continue to emerge as a young professional. As discussed, I have attached my resume to this email. In addition to my own monitoring of future openings with (their company), please feel free to keep my resume on file and let me know if a position opens up in your team as I’d love to apply!
(link to your LinkedIn, website, etc.)
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for anyone’s career journey. Everyone’s situation will be unique, and not all the advice in this article might apply to you. Therefore, if I can leave with one final thought: find your passion and never stop learning! Only then can career tools like informational interviews be strategically forged into an instrument for personal and professional change!