"Informational interviews" are an excellent method of learning about a job or employer before committing yourself to a new direction for your career.
One major advantage of informational interviews is that you will learn more about a specific field or employer, without being "on the spot" like you are in a job interview.
However, not being in a formal job interview doesn't mean you can be careless in your approach or in how you conduct the process itself.
We can collect an amazing amount of information from the Internet today, but reading what someone has written or even watching a video is not quite the same as talking with an expert on the topic.
When you "interview" someone about their job or profession in an informational interview, you have an opportunity to ask serious questions to learn whether or not something is a good fit for you.
Know why you want to speak with someone before you attempt to set up the interview. You don't need to share all of your motivation, but your invitation will be more credible and, consequently, more effective.
Know your objective for each interview -- to learn something specific about: that person's job (current or past), their employer (current or past), the industry, or the profession. That goal will help you better prepare your questions, do more relevant research, and have a better idea of others who could be good follow-on interviewees.
You will hopefully learn much more than what you have defined as your objective, but at a minimum, you will have increased your knowledge in at least one aspect of your goal.
As with any other interview or business meeting, prepare well for each interview. Know enough about the topic you want to discuss -- field, job, employer -- and the person you will be talking with, to avoid asking dumb questions. You don't need to be an expert, but you need to ask intelligent questions.
Research the person you will be interviewing. Particularly if you haven't met the person, read (vs. scan) their LinkedIn Profile and Google them. Before the interview, make notes on the following points:
For example, if you want to work for Google and you are talking with someone who worked there until 2016, ask them questions like, "When you worked at Google in 2015, did management measure success for individual members of your project team or was the whole team measured and rewarded as a group?"
Ask questions that show your knowledge and demonstrate that you take this opportunity very seriously. Show respect and preparation, and you will make a good impression. Being unprepared leaves a very bad impression.
Research the topic that is the reason for the interview. Hopefully, you know why you are talking with this person (your objective, #1, above). Focus your preparation on that objective.
Have ten to twenty solid questions prepared specifically for the person you will be talking with. Because you can't assume you'll have time to ask all of your questions, prioritize those questions based on that person and your objective for the discussion.
Assuming that the interview starts well, ask the questions most relevant to your goal early in the interview. Remember, this isn't a two-hour discussion. You may never again have a chance to speak with this person, so use the time you have with them as effectively as possible. Stay focused on your objective, and be respectful of the other person's time.
Read Questions to Ask in Informational Interviews for more than 80 possible questions to ask about each person's experience in a job, the field, and/or the employer. Choose the ones most relevant for you from this list, and use it to think of other questions specific to you and the person you are interviewing..
If you know the person well, you may be able to call them, and ask them if they could spare you 15 to 20 minutes to talk about their (job, profession, employer, etc.). If you don't know them well, send a simple email, making it clear that the discussion would be at their convenience, in a location they prefer (including their office, if that is their preference), with you buying the appropriate refreshments, if needed.
If they aren't located near you or are very busy, request a phone call. Again, make it clear the call would be short and at their convenience.
When it is time for the interview, be punctual, just as you would for a job interview! Start on time, at the agreed location, and end the interview when you said you would.
If they offer more time, you can certainly accept it (assuming your schedule allows). But, be ready to end the call at the agreed-upon time.
Do NOT bring copies of your resume to an informational interview, unless the person has, without your encouragement, indicated an interest in seeing it. Sometimes, discussing your resume can be a major waste of time, particularly if the person is not a hiring manager accustomed to reviewing resumes.
While your goal is to change jobs, asking someone for an "informational interview" when you really pitch yourself for a new job is known as "bait-and-switch"! Bait and switch is not usually appreciated, particularly by someone with a tight schedule or who has made an extra effort to help you. Most people will be annoyed, and some will be offended, at being tricked into receiving a sales pitch from you.
Do bring business cards, rather than your resume, particularly if you don't know the person who has agreed to speak with you. You can open the interview by offering your business card, and hopefully receiving one in return.
Remember, if requested (!), you can always email your resume to the person after the interview is over.
Be professional! This isn't the time to complain about your boss, current (or former) employer, school, parents, spouse, or other trash talk. Don't confess to a major personal screw-up, and don't rant about sports, politics, religion, or other off-topic subject.
Even if the person is an old friend, stick to the subject so you can collect the information you need (your objective) without exceeding the time commitment.
At the end of the interview, ask for the names and contact information of others who might be willing to help you learn more about this field or employer. Ask if they would have the time to do a brief introduction (email or phone call) to help you connect with the new person.
Needing multiple sources of information provides you with an excellent reason to ask, at the end of the interview,
"Do you know someone else who would be a good source of information for me?"
If the person suggests a name, write it down carefully (double-check the spelling), and ask for the email address and phone number. Getting these referrals makes informational interviews great networking, too! Read The Hidden Value of Informational Interviews (written by a recruiter) for more ideas.
When someone has shared their time and knowledge with you, be sure to send them a thank you for that valuable time and information (even if it doesn't feel valuable right now). Email is usually fine, unless you know that the person prefers snail-mail.
When you move to that next step in your career at some point in the future, drop the person a short note with an update of your situation, with your new work contact information. Then, thank them for their help, again. This person may become a member of your professional network, long-term.
More information: Sending Your Thank You After the Job Interview
To be most effective, conducting several informational interviews is the best approach. Multiple interviews means you won't be overly influenced by one person's experience (good or bad) and their knowledge (limited by their own career and experience).
As sites like Glassdoor have shown, when you are trying to learn about a specific employer, include both current and former employees. Sometimes former employees can be very good sources of information, and often, they still have contacts inside of the organization who can be helpful information sources for you.
If you are employed, they could be people you work with now. However, if you may be changing employers when you are done collecting this information, don't talk with co-workers. Better options would be people you know fairly well (or knew well in the past), but who don't work for the same employer where you work now.
Check out the backgrounds of the people in your LinkedIn network. Who has the job title and/or employer you are considering? Reach out to them via email or phone.
Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.