Project Wonderful

Thursday, July 31, 2014

What To Ask At An Informational Interview

'Tis the season for informational interviews, at least judging by the number of requests I've gotten. Those of you who read CampaignSick frequently know I am a big fan of the informational interview as a knowledge gathering and/or networking device. However, asking for an informational interview is just the first step. What you ask at the interview is just as important (obviously.) Some people really hit it out of the park and some people...really don't. (Hit it in the park? Swing and miss?) Here is some general advice gathered from the informational interviews I've been asked to participate in lately. Obviously what to ask depends on why you're holding the interview, but here are some ideas.

Good Questions to Ask
"What skills and experiences will prepare me to do_______?"
Sometimes you know where you are and you know where you want to be in 5 years, but you're not sure what your next step is. This is a question to help figure out what you need to do to position yourself toward your end goal without asking for a one size fits all prescription.

"What do you wish you had known __ years ago?"
I ask this of pretty much anyone I get the chance to interview for any reason because I think the answers are always fascinating. It also gives you stuff to consider in your personal and professional development. People love answering this question so it's a great way to get someone to open up.

"What do you wish you had known before you took your current job?"/"What does your typical day look like?"
These are good questions to help decide if your interviewee's career or current organization is a good fit for you. This also helps prepare you if do wind up following in their footsteps.

"Who else should I be talking to?"
This provides a natural lead in to asking for your interviewee's networking help and helps connect you to great people you might not have met otherwise. "Oh really? Nancy Leeds. That's a great idea! Would you be willing to introduce me?"

"Is it ok if I get in touch with you about_____?"
Another good, low pressure way to ask for help and ensure you have a reason to continue the relationship after this meeting.

Questions Not to Ask
"What is your job/title?"
If you don't know who they are or what they do then why do you want to talk to them?

"Can you help me get a job doing_____?"
Your interviewee is there to provide advice, not headhunting services. They may offer to help after you have a conversation, but they have not agreed to do so just by meeting with you. This question, especially before they get to know you, is off-putting and presumptuous.

"I know you work in X, but can you tell me about Y?"
If you're not sure what you want to do, that's fine. Do more than one interview. Asking your interviewee questions outside of their expertise makes you look unprepared and will leave them with a bad taste in their mouth. Everyone loves giving advice but most people don't like not knowing the answer to a question. This can make your conversation go sour, fast.

"I want to do X, but I'm not willing to take the steps to do it."
This is a complaint, not a question. It's usually not phrased so directly, but I put it here as a stand in to any question or statement that basically says, "I want to get ahead in this business without doing the work that everyone else has done" (Ex: "I want to a field director on a congressional next cycle but I really don't want to be an organizer first.") Yes, there is more than one way to climb the professional ladder, but if you're not willing to do the work you're probably not going to get the job. Keep in mind the person you are interviewing probably went through these steps themselves (ahem) so it can be insulting to imply that you're too good to do the work they've already done.

"What do you want to know about me...?"
You are the interviewer. They are the interviewee. Hopefully you wind up sharing your story over the course of the interview or even in your initial introduction, but it is not your interviewee's job to draw it out of you.

Additional Advice
Google First.
I've talked about this before, but don't ask your interviewee anything you could have found out googling them.

Follow Up.
I've mentioned this before too. If you tell the interviewee you are going to send your resume, make sure you do so. Either way write a note (email is fine) thanking them and reminding them of any next steps they promised to take on your behalf.

Define your objective.
Always tell your interviewee why you've asked to speak with them. Are you thinking of changing careers? Do you want to wind up in their position? Are you looking to figure out your next steps? This will help give direction to the interaction and naturally encourage them to proactively think about the best ways to help you.

Be Obsequious.
One of the biggest reasons that people agree to informational interviews is because it's flattering. Make sure to be appreciative and let them know you value their time and advice.

Realize Everyone Has a Point of View.
This point was made in a recent guest post,and it's something I've noticed for a long time. People want you to follow their path because it validates their choices. When I finished grad school I alternatively had people telling me, "go into finance" or "don't go into finance" as if it were gospel. People who had husbands and kids told me to make sure I picked a job that gave me work life balance. People who hadn't started families told me not to plan around a personal life. Advice is great, but ultimately you'll have to make the choices that fit your priorities and make you happy.

Happy Interviewing!


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