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How to Handle Informational Interviews

By Michael B. Laskoff In my previous life as an executive and as an out-of-work job seeker, I've been on both ends of informational interviews. Thanks to such meetings, I've secured some fulfilling jobs and have helped others do the same. That's why it always surprises me to hear people swear that informational interviews are a waste of time -- a pointless, socially awkward encounter that leads nowhere.

I know from experience that doesn't have to be the case. Here's the trick: You have to manage the meeting. If you put as much effort into running the meeting as you did securing it, you're bound to have a positive experience.

While this may sound awkward or presumptuous, it's nothing more than simple business etiquette: Generally, whoever calls a business meeting sets the agenda and runs it. If you secure an informational interview, you control the agenda. Here are some guidelines to help you manage your meetings:

1. Do Your Homework

Often, you will have just one chance to network with the people you're targeting, so don't waste those precious minutes gathering information that you can easily get elsewhere. Good preparation involves researching the individual, company, and industry. Also, doing that preliminary work will help you establish your goals ahead of time. Someone who's active in industry organizations might be more inclined to give you other contacts, whereas an individual at a cutting-edge company might be a better bet for insight into growth areas.

It's important to ask at the beginning of an informational interview how much time you have so that you can appropriately prioritize. And don't ever assume that you'll get all the time you were promised.

2. Provide the Context

Most worthwhile networking contacts are busy, so chances are they won't have given you or your job search much thought before the meeting. At best, a well-organized person will spend a minute or two looking at your resume prior to your arrival -- if he or she can find it. Put the other person at ease by establishing background and context straight away.

Start by offering a fresh copy of your resume while reminding your new contact which friend, acquaintance, organization, or affiliation you have in common. Then, briefly state your goals for the meeting and offer a five-to-seven minute overview of your professional background. This should include a sympathetic telling of the circumstances that led to your job search and end with a statement of your immediate professional goals.

This pitch will do a lot to determine how you're perceived, so don't wing it. Practice until you sound conversational while still able to get in all the important points, such as a credible version of what led to your job search. It's important not to sound bitter, defensive, or overconfident. Being self-assured while still maintaining an air of humility is much more likely to get you the desired results.

Whatever you do, don't just sit there. The term informational interview is somewhat misleading because it implies that the job-seeker should be passive, just soaking up what the other person has to say. Such confusion about roles can lead to a situation in which no one gets any value from the exchange, and that's a recipe for disaster.

3. Don't Ask for a Job

Nothing puts off a new contact like a plea for work. From the contact's point of view, it turns an opportunity to offer advice and networking assistance into an uncomfortable situation, which is best -- and quickly -- resolved by ejecting the job seeker. If you impress your new contact and he or she knows of something suitable, they'll mention it. But being too aggressive or proactive usually won't produce the desirable results.

4. Follow Up

For most people, follow up consists of a thank-you note. While that's the minimal acceptable courtesy, it's a waste in isolation after you put so much time and energy into securing, preparing for, and having the meeting. People may have additional ideas for you, think of other people that you should meet, or hear of appropriate job openings after your meeting has ended. But unless you're on their mind, you'll never hear about any of these things.

So, stay in touch with your contacts. If you've met with someone that he or she referred you to, send an e-mail informing them, summarizing the conversation, and thanking him again. If you come across an article that you think might be interesting, forward it. By simply touching base with your contacts every four to six weeks, you greatly increase the number of people who are thinking about your career and can help you with your search.

And don't forget to let your contacts know when you've gotten a job, even if it wasn't as a result of any help they gave you. They may ask you to return the favor and talk to someone else who's looking for a job.

Remember, the better your search, the better the result. Laskoff is the author of Landing On The Right Side Of Your Ass: A Survival Guide For The Recently Unemployed. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he has worked in the investment banking, consulting, and entertainment industries, as well as a number of e-commerce start-ups. Currently, he operates the Web site.

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