Now that you are ready to start doing some informational interviews, there are a few things to keep in mind.
They aren’t “networking.”
Networking continues to have a negative connotation in my mind with slicked-back hair broker events and ivy-league grad students at happy hour mixers. In my experience, networking is this surreal state of walking up to someone you don’t know in a big room, saying: “Hi, I’m such and such, what do you do?” It just reeks of awkward, with you trying to butt into a conversation between two people that already know each other. You end up taking extra trips to the bathroom, bar, or snack table because you have no one to talk to. At best, both people are just trying to get a business card out of each other, and there usually is little to no opportunity to have a genuine conversation. Instead, informationals are one-on-one, providing the opportunity for a legitimate conversation in a no-pressure setting. You generally already know what the other person does, making it less awkward.
They aren’t a “job interview.”
A job interview has a very different setting than an informational interview. There are stakes. A business has a human resource need and you need a job. Each side is really trying to impress the other side. I would argue some of the systems laid out below are helpful in job interviews, but not vice versa. Imagine the neighbor kid asks to grab coffee with you to learn about what you do, only to ask you within the first five minutes for a job at your company. Even if you are willing to help, you’d still be on your heels and generally not ready to answer that question yet. Instead, think of an informational as an opportunity to gain a friend who may lead you towards a job (or investment or relationship).
They aren’t an interrogation, gossip or face-time.
The other type of interview we are all familiar with is the journalist/talk show host/reporter interview. This type of interview is purely transactional, where the reporter is gaining news or a sound byte and the interviewee is gaining notoriety, spreading gossip or getting his five minutes of fame. An informational interview is not about getting face time with a higher-up, an opportunity to extract insider information, or to talk badly about people you know or should know. Keep informationals professional, asking things that the other person is willing to give and making them feel as if they are talking to a friend, son or daughter.
They aren’t mentorship.
Mentorship is usually formed out of a relationship, has specific boundaries and expectations, happens over a long period of time, and requires an investment, both by the mentor and mentee. While you may gain mentor-like wisdom from an informational interview, the context is usually one-and-done. This is part of the magic; how much easier is it to convince someone to meet with you for 30 minutes one time and that is it? This keeps the barrier to accepting an invitation low, both in terms of time commitment and emotional investment.
They aren’t a pitch.
Imagine being asked to grab a coffee to chat, only to show up and be offered life insurance for you and your family. No. There is a time and place for a pitch, and an informational is not one of them. While your conversation may turn to new ideas, thoughts on side-businesses and investments, or telling your life story, the focus must not be on “getting something” from the other person. Remember, the two magic questions are still informational in nature: “Is there an opportunity for me at this company?” and “Do you know who I should talk to next?” Neither necessitates action by the other party or is trying to sell them something they do not want.
They aren’t an impersonal digital exchange
There is something important about doing these in person. I’ve tried multiple times to do an informational over the phone or over an email exchange. The connection is never there and the results vary. I’ve been able to “connect” with some great people via email or had a phone chat with them, but I would never expect to be able to call on them if I needed a connection or follow up of any kind. The same goes for LinkedIn. Which would you be more likely to respond to: “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn” or “Hey remember when we met at Pain du Monde and I spilled coffee all over my shirt?” I still remember in-person meetings I had from when I was in high-school. Informationals must be in person. Many more magical things happen when two people are sitting across from each other; new ideas emerge, memories are jogged, people remembered, and opportunities offered.
They aren’t about private life.
We have all been to coffee with a friend and asked: “So how are you doing?” followed up with “My life sucks right now…” These are often some of the best conversations you’ve ever had, but they aren’t informational interviews. Coming to an informational with emotional baggage is a drag on the interviewee and not professional. Once I went to an informational with a guy who’d been in the industry for 25 years at a respected company, only to find out he hated his job, his employer, was getting a divorce, and was generally unhappy. I left that interview feeling strange. I know it sounds a bit harsh, but please bring your professional life only to informationals.
They aren’t consumption.
Summing up, the informational interview should have a singular purpose, which is to learn from the other person. There may be the benefit of career advancement, new contacts and relationships, investment opportunities, trips and travel, fun, a free lunch, insider info, wisdom, or emotional counseling. By doing lots of informational interviews, you will probably see many of these benefits, but they are not the primary purpose. You shouldn’t try to “get” anything out of the other person. Remember, informationals are there for two people to share information and advice.
Hopefully by seeing what informational isn’t, it becomes clearer what it is: “An opportunity to learn by talking in person to someone you haven’t talked to before, usually over coffee or lunch.” Now let’s get started.