Ah yes… the informational interview.

In my work as a career coach I find that there is a lot of mystery around this kind of meeting and fear about asking for them.

Allow me to demystify and clarify!

The purpose of an informational interview is to learn about a field or industry from someone who knows it firsthand. It can, and sometimes does, lead to a job offer, but the purpose of it is not to ask for a job.

Doing informational interviews is an important part of the information-gathering stage of a job search. It usually comes after some solid online, book, and media research and deciding that it is a field that you’d like to explore. You can save time by doing some soul searching or working with a professional to clarify your values and what’s important to you beforehand. This is part of what I do as a coach.

Either way, you’ll eventually need to learn more about the industry, or particular opportunities within the industry and informational interviews are the best way to do that.

Here are some awesome things you can get out of them:

Clarity. These interviews can help you get clear on whether or not you actually want to go into a particular field. At one point in time, I thought I might like to go into urban planning. After two informational interviews, I was very clear that it was not the field for me, which was great to know! Informational interviews can also help you clarify what skills and experience you need to have for certain roles, or what roles in the field would be a good fit for your skills and experience.

Connections. These conversations are a great way to connect to people in the field. Your interview subjects might be able to offer you a job, connect you to a potential employer, or otherwise help you build a network in the field. With each person you meet, ask them who else you should talk to, and ask about professional associations or meetups for people in the field if your have not found any on your own.

Practice. Informational interviews force you to talk about yourself and what you’re interested in, which you need to be good at for the real interviews you’ll do later.

Information. This is more obvious but an informational interview is a great way to learn about organization or industry culture, typical salaries, how competitive it is, common challenges, and everything else you cannot learn from the internet. If you’re looking to start a business, this is a great way to learn some entrepreneurial wisdom and save yourself some of learning the hard way.

How do you ask for an informational interview?

A lot of my clients and workshop participants assume that the people they want to talk to will not want to talk to them or will not have time. Some won’t but some will and they will be excited about it. Deep down, humans like to help other humans. It makes them feel good. Also, a lot of people like getting to talk about themselves and the work they’re passionate about it and want to support others in getting into the field.

It’s always best if you can get an introduction from someone you know. E-introductions are great. That’s when the person you know emails you and cc’s the other person to ask for a meeting on your behalf. If you’re at an event, an in-person intro is great too. Then you can exchange information and set up a follow-up conversation.

Also, you don’t always need to meet with someone in person to have a great conversation and some people don’t have time for that. You might offer to take them out for coffee but say that if a short phone conversation is more convenient, you’d love that too.

Start by making a list of everyone you know who might know anything about the field you’re interested in. Identify the most likely to know folks and contact them first. If you’re not sure where to start, consider posting on social media with something like, “Who do I know who works in finance or knows people in finance?” That could elicit a valuable response and doesn’t necessarily imply that you’re job hunting or exploring your options, in case you are keeping that under wraps with your current employer.

If you can’t get introduced to someone, reaching out via phone, email, or LinkedIn is worth doing. Be sure to follow up at least once. You’re not going to be a pest. People are busy and they might appreciate the nudge.

To get support for your job transition, check out my coaching group Operation Dream Job.