Informational interviews are a powerful tool to explore potential careers and experiences. Virtual informational interviews can give you access to a broader range of people to support your exploration. Whether you’re seeking a job, exploring new experiences, or planning for a change, this post offers a comprehensive guide to help with virtual informational interviews.
What is an Informational Interview?
An informational interview is a conversation with a person doing something that you want to explore further. During an informational interview, the interviewer asks questions to learn and gain a better understanding of the interviewee’s experiences and perspectives. These chats typically last around 15-30 minutes.
While many job seekers conduct informational interviews, it is a faux pas to directly ask if the person you are talking to can hire you. Available positions and future opportunities might arise as part of the conversation, but that is not the goal of informational interviews. The goal is to research experiences and perspectives about a role, field, or experience you want to explore further.
Why Conduct Informational Interviews?
There are a lot of compelling reasons why it’s worthwhile to conduct informational interviews. The top 3 reasons revolve around the following:
- Learn and understand
- Grow your network
- Practice engaging
1. Learn and Understand
As mentioned earlier, the goal of informational interviews is to talk to people about their experiences and perspectives in a role, field, or with an experience you want to explore further. So a major reason to conduct informational interviews is to learn and understand more about an area you are interested in.
In life design, informational interviews are considered a powerful prototype. Why? They allow you to explore without a significant investment. Learning and understanding more about something you are interested and, perhaps, might not have a lot of knowledge about helps in two primary ways:
- You can gauge your interest by noticing how you feel during the conversation
- Learn how to navigate exploring a topic from someone with experience, which saves you time and energy
2. Grow Your Network
One of the main reasons to grow your network is to help your potential job prospects. You have probably seen headlines stating that anywhere from 70-85% of jobs are not posted and/or filled through networking (here is one article). While the goal of the interview itself is not to ask for a job, it does put you on the radar of someone who might have or know of a job down-the-line.
Growing your network in certain areas can help you to tap into the community(ies) and culture of that field. While informational interviews can give you direct access to individual people, the information you learn can help you tap into opportunities and people in other ways (e.g., following specific job boards, access mentoring groups, follow thought leaders, etc.)
3. Practice Engaging
Job interviews can be uncomfortable. Informational interviews give you the opportunity to practice and refine engaging with people who experience areas you might not be familiar with. This could cover fundamentals like how to message someone or logistics of the setting up the interview. It could also help uncover how people in certain areas tend to communicate.
Also, as many jobs move to remote or hybrid working models, you might actually have a virtual job interview (or at least partially). Virtual informational interviews could help you practice engaging in the virtual job world.
What Makes a Virtual Informational Interview Different?
Prior to COVID-19, informational interviews happened both in-person and virtually (e.g., phone calls, video calls, etc.). Virtual informational interviews tend to be logistically easier to set up. The virtual setting also allows access to a broader range of people who could be situated in different time zones and/or countries.
Navigating social interactions might feel a bit more awkward virtually. However, since virtual meetings have become quite standardized, virtual engagement norms have gotten better since pre-COVID-19 times.
When to Conduct Informational Interviews?
Transitional moments are a popular time to conduct informational interviews because they are a low-cost way to gain important information. These moments could include, but are definitely not limited to:
- embarking on a new opportunity
- advancing your career
- weighing further education
- considering a lifestyle change (e.g., family, work, travel, etc.)
- pivotting in a different direction
In addition to transitional moments, I (as well as many others) recommend getting into the habit of conducting informational interviews on an ongoing basis. Why? They help develop the three things outlined earlier:
- Learning new information
- Growing your network
- Practicing engaging
Who to Talk to?
Broadly speaking, talk to people doing something that you are curious about.
When you lead with curiosity, you will likely connect with a wide range of people. This is also a good way to make informational interviewing an ongoing practice.
If leading with curiosity feels too broad, then I recommend asking yourself, “What are you trying to learn about?”
If you are feeling stuck, I recommend checking out this stakeholder mapping activity to help you brainstorm on the range of people you could talk to.
Where to Find People?
Sometimes it can be challenging to find people to have an informational interview with, especially in the beginning. However, the virtual environment has made it a bit easier to access people. Here are some suggestions of where to find people to talk to:
- People You Know: Starting with your own network might help ease discomfort and get started quickly
- Organizations: If you are a member of a professional, service, civic, and hobby organization you can ask fellow members for an interview
- Alumni: Former students of schools or programs you were part of can be a great source for interviews
- Social Media: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook Groups, and Clubhouse are just some of the social media platforms you can leverage for informational interviews
- Mentoring Programs: Mentors are a great source for practicing informational interviews
- Events: Depending on the type of event, you could have informational interviews there or meet people to have follow-up interviews with.
For detailed information, check out the post Where to Find People To Network With.
How to Ask For An Informational Interview?
Requests for virtual informational interviews typically happen over email or some other type of messaging platform (e.g., LinkedIn). In general, when asking for an informational interview you want to:
- Keep the message short, respectful, and to the point
- Be up front about your request (e.g., 20-30 minutes to learn more about…)
- Mention a mutual connection or association
Here is a sample message for an informational interview request via connecting on LinkedIn:
Hello (person’s name)! My name is (your name) and I came across your profile as I was exploring (xxx). I would love to connect to hear more about your journey and (something specific). If you have 20-30min (include a set of dates or time frame) for an informational interview, let me know. Thanks for your consideration.
What Are the Logistics to Consider?
For virtual informational interviews, there are 3 main categories of logistics to consider:
When it comes to time these are some logistics to consider:
- Length of the inteview (e.g., 20-30 minutes)
- Day of the Week (e.g., Monday, Tuesday, etc.)
- Time of Day (e.g., morning, evening, etc.)
- Time Zones (i.e., your time zone and theirs)
There are primarily two virtual mediums for virtual informational interviews:
- Video Calls
- Audio Calls
Video calls often take place on popular platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams, etc. If you opt for the video call route, figure out what platforms both you and your interviewee prefer.
For audio calls, you can use many of the popular video calling platforms (just without your camera) or if you’re in the same country you can simply make a phone call.
Whatever medium you choose, you want to consider the following:
- What works for you (e.g., if your internet connection isn’t great, opt for an audio call)
- Your interviewees preference(s) (e.g., video calls can help build rapport, audio calls can create ease because of the lack of video, phone calls might be easier for those on-the-go, etc.)
- Back up (make sure to have at least one back up method if your primary medium doesn’t work (e.g., phone number in case video call fails))
As you plan for your informational interview, be mindful of your environment. Ideally, you will be in a location that is well-lit (if you’re having a video call) with minimal background noise.
Here are some tools to help you if your environment is less than ideal:
- Virtual Background: If you prefer that your interviewee does not see what’s in your background, you can use a a video platform that allows you to enable a virtual background (e.g., Zoom) or blur your background (e.g., Microsoft Teams).
- Headset/Microphone: Using a headset/microphone can help your interviewee hear your better.
- Ring Light: A light ring can help add a flattering light to spaces that are not well lit.
How to Prepare?
In addition to the logistics mentioned in the previous section, there are three things you can do in order to be well prepared for your interview:
- Research the Person
- Research the Point of Your Conversation
- Create Questions
Research the Person
Make sure to research the person you are interviewing. At a minimum, this could be perusing their LinkedIn profile. Some people also have websites and public social media profiles. Doing your research will help you create tailored questions and have a richer conversation.
Research the Point of Your Conversation
You want to research the reason you are reaching out to your interviewee. This could be to learn more about a specific industry, a particular role, life experience, etc. Doing research on the point of your conversation will help you focus on questions that are not easily answerable from using a search engine.
You will want to create questions to ask during your interview based on your research above. Ideally, these questions aim to dig deep. Good questions will help you better understand perspectives, experiences, sentiments, or even outlooks. Here are some examples:
- Can you tell me more about your experience with XXX and how it helped you professionally develop?
- How do you think a person new to XXX could effectively get started?
- What’s your thoughts on the impact of XXX on XXX?
- How do you XXX changing in the next few years?
The length of your informational interview will help you gauge how many questions to create. On average, budget about 3 minutes to ask one question and hear the answer. For a 30-minute interview, creating 5-7 thoughtful questions will give you a strong foundation for your conversation.
What to Ask?
In addition to the questions you created, there are other questions you can ask to help structure your conversation.
After saying hello, introducing yourself, and thanking your interviewee, it’s a good idea to start off with some general warm-up questions. If your research into the person you’re interviewing didn’t yield much, then starting with the question, “Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?” might be a good start. Be prepared that your interviewee might ask you to focus the question. You could follow up by asking, “How did you get into XXX?”
After your warm-up question(s), the middle of the interview will likely be the heart of your conversation. This is where you want to ask the tailored questions you created based on your research and preparation. You will want to rank these questions in order of importance to you as you might not have time to ask all of them.
In addition to asking your prepared questions, it’s important to remember that this is a conversation. If your interviewee says something that piques your interest, pose a follow-up question. You can always ask, “Can you tell me more about that…?” or “Why…?”, to learn more about a particular point that your interviewee made.
If you want more support in posing Why questions, check out this post on the 5 Whys activity, which includes a section on informational interviews.
The last question(s) of your interview could be framed as a call to action to continue your exploration. These questions could be suggestions for additional people to speak to or resources to check out. For example, “Do you have suggestions on resources on XXX to look into?” or “Do have any suggestions on who else to talk to about XXX?”
In my experience, people are typically happy to provide additional resources but might forget if not prompted.
What to Do During?
When it comes time to conduct your interview, might be feeling a bit nervous and, hopefully, excited. Don’t worry! You did a lot of work to prepare.
Ask your questions and actively listen to your interviewee. This could be by posing follow-up questions, as mentioned before, or even repeating something they said to make sure you understood it correctly.
If you would like to take notes during the interview, I recommend taking active measures to minimize any distractions or awkward silences. This could be using pen and paper vs. a computer to take notes, jotting key phrases vs. sentences, or simply letting your interviewee know that you need a moment to write something down.
Check out this post for taking notes during informational interviews.
Finally, it’s important to remember that you guide the interview and keep track of time. In terms of keeping track of time, letting yourself and your interviewee know when you have 5 minutes left. A timer or alarm that only you see, hear, or feel is ideal. This shows that you are:
- mindful of their time
- leaves you ample space to ask one last question (and thank them for their time)
- gives your interviewee the opportunity to extend the interview if schedules permit
What to Do After?
After your interview is done, I recommend immediately spending at least 5 minutes organizing your thoughts by writing a reflection, reviewing your notes, bookmarking resources mentioned, etc. Doing this right after the interview is ideal because things are fresh in your mind.
Within 24 hours after your interview, send along a thank-you note. This could be via e-mail or the social media platform you corresponded on. It also might be worth connecting with your interviewee on social media if they use a certain platform professionally (e.g., LinkedIn).
Informational interviews are a powerful tool to explore many careers and experiences.
This guide aimed to demystify virtual informational interviews by offering a comprehensive overview of the main steps involved. In addition to this guide, I recommend checking out additional resources based on your situation. Here are some examples from people in my network:
- If you’re a Ph.D. student, check out this video by Roshni Rao and this article by Gian Molina-Castro.
- If you’re curious what it’s like to be on the receiving end of an interview request, check out this page by Hannah Alpert-Abrams.
- If you need some empathetic motivation, check out this post by Anna Fitzgibbon.
Virtual informational interviews might seem daunting, but they are worth it. The virtual setting provides access to people beyond your geographic boundaries. Speaking to a diversity of people can help you learn about perseptives and opportunities you might not know about otherwise. In addition to learning new things, you will actively grow your network.
If you have further questions on virtual informational interviews, feel free to leave a comment. Good luck!
*Special thanks to Clifton E. Shambry Jr. for providing detailed and constructive feedback on this post. Also, thanks to Leah Banks for her feedback.