How to Conduct an Informational Interview
Informational interviews are an excellent way to collect information on a subject from someone with experience in the field. They can be used for a wide variety of purposes, from gathering information for an article or a blog to expanding your own personal industry knowledge. To use and educate about science effectively, reaching out to experts living and working within the community you are trying to affect is the best way to make sure that you are designing an fruitful project that will be well-received.
Reaching out to people can be daunting. Remember that most people are more than happy to give their time to teach someone else about their specialty. The key is how you approach them.
Below we provide tips and tricks for a respectful ask and a successful interview.
5 Steps to Conducting an Informational Interview
The five steps to conducting an informational interview are:
1. Reaching out
3. Deciding whether or not to Record
5. Following up
The idea of conducting an interview with a stranger can be very intimidating, especially if you've never done it before. We'll go through the details of the four steps to conducting a successful informational interview to demystify the process. Before you start the process of reaching out, however, take a minute to decide if an informational interview is the best way to gain the information you need. You don't want to ask someone for an interview about topics that you could easily look up for yourself. That will just waste your time and your interview subject's time. You want to be interviewing them because of their personal experience and knowledge, not about a list of facts and statistics readily available on the internet.
1. Reaching Out
Your first point of contact with your subject will set the tone for the rest of the interview process. Make sure you are kind, courteous, and respectful of your subject's time. Be as flexible as you can without jeopardizing your timeline. Here are the things you need to remember when first reaching out:
- Determine the best way to reach out to your contact. Phone calls are likely to get a faster response, but sometimes people and business specifically ask for inquiries to be directed in writing.
- Start a formal email with "hello" rather than "hey" or "hi."
- Introduce yourself, explain who you are and who are working for or affiliated with.
- Explain in clear terms what you are asking for and where the information is going. Everyone, not just politicians, wants to know how the information they're giving you is going to be used.
- Always be honest about how you are planning to use the information from the interview. Is it going into an online article? Will it be posted on social media? Is it just for your or your organization's informational purposes?
Being prepared is the key to a successful interview. Not only will it help put you at ease, but it will help put your subject at ease when they see that you came prepared. Here are some tips to help you prepare:
- Do your research beforehand. Find out as much basic information about your interview subject as possible beforehand so you don't have to waste valuable interview time on the basics.
- This can include finding out what party they're a part of, what issues are important to them, how they've voted in the past, where they're from, what their full name is and how to spell it, etc.
- Prepare questions ahead of time, especially if you're doing an interview over the phone. You don't have to follow your questions exactly during the interview, but you never want to be stuck with no questions to ask
- Organize your questions into a flow. It'll be easier to have a smooth interview if you have transitions planned and don't jump around too much
- Even after you prepare, keep a flexible mindset. The interview might go in a different direction than you expected, and that's okay.
3. Deciding whether or not to Record
Before you have your interview, you need to determine if you want to record it. Recording interviews can be extremely helpful, especially you need exact quotes or will be talking about a lot of information. Decide beforehand if this is something you want to do. If you decide that you do want to record the interview, follow these guidelines:
- If you decide you want or need to record the interview, you should always get consent from the other person.
- This is both the respectful and legally optimal thing to do. You always want to show respect for the person you are interviewing, especially if you anticipate wanting to build a further relationship with them.
- Legally speaking as of July 2020, Georgia is a one-party consent state. This means that any party to a conversation can record the conversation without obtaining the consent of anyone else in the conversation, and they do not have to inform anyone else that they are recording.
- Bear this in mind as you conduct interviews. Even if you aren't recording, they might be. Watch your words and make sure you aren't saying anything that you wouldn't be okay with having recorded.
- It is NOT legal to record someone else's private conversation that you are not a part of. The only exception to this is if you are on public property and are only recording noises or visuals that are clearly audible or visible to anyone in that public space. Once again, keep this in mind when you are in public spaces. Anyone has the right to record what you say or do in open public spaces.
- Even though Georgia is a one party consent state, other states have different laws. Each state has the right to determine these laws for themselves.
- Other states have what are called all party consent laws. These types of laws require everyone in the conversation to consent to being recorded.
- The laws of whatever state the conversation is taking place in are what are applied to the conversation. So even if you live in a one-party consent state, if you are having a conversation in an all-party consent state, those are the laws you must follow.
- If you are having a phone interview with someone in a different state than you, be absolutely sure to follow the laws of the more restrictive state.
- However, even if the law says that it's legal for you to record without consent or informing the other party, you should always do it anyway.
- Ask the person if they would be okay with you recording the interview BEFORE you start the actual interview. Explain your reasons for wanting to record the interview.
- For example, "Would you mind if I recorded this interview? It would really help me to get accurate quotes for my article."
- If they consent to being recorded, go ahead and start a recording. Then ask them again if they are okay being recorded and have them consent again, while being recorded, so that you have proof that they consented.
- If they don't consent, respect their answer, make sure to take good notes, and move on. Don't try to convince them to let you record.
You've done the work, now you've got the interview! Good job! Okay, take a deep breath and remember:
- Confidence is key when conducting an interview. If you act confident, no one will be able to tell if you've never done this before.
- Always remember that ultimately, this is just another conversation. You're talking to another person, not a machine or a robot.
- Always bring your questions, a notepad, and multiple writing utensils. Even if you're recording the interview, be sure to take thorough notes.
- Make sure that you take lots of notes during the interview, especially if you're not recording it.
- Never start the interview with your most important questions unless you are anticipating a very short interview. It usually takes both you and the subject a few minutes to get warmed up and comfortable talking.
- Don't be afraid to ask someone to talk slower or to repeat themselves. It shows that you are paying attention and care about what they are saying.
- Remember that you are the driver of the interview car. You have the choice of which conversation roads to take during the interview. If a new road choice that looks like a good path to explore presents itself, don't be afraid to go down it. Then just remember to steer the car back onto the main subject road.
- You're doing better than you think! Interviewing can be an intimidating prospect, but you're almost always doing better than you think you are.
5. Following Up:
Following up on an interview is just as important as the interview itself. If you show that you care about the person and that you are grateful for their time and efforts, they will be more than happy to be a contact for you in the future. One conversation can lead to years of communication. Following up is very simple, just remember:
- Always send a follow-up email after the interview. Thank them for taking the time to speak with you, and ask any questions you have forgotten to ask during the interview or that have come up since the interview.
- If you are writing an article or creating a tangible material from the information gained in the interview, it's usually a nice gesture to send them the finished product.
- As a rule, don't send any unfinished products to people unless you are directly collaborating with them on the material. Everyone has a bias, and they may try to convince you to do something with your work that you don't want to do.
- Use your best judgement here. If this an expert in what you are trying to convey, it could well be worth it to send them the products you are creating to check for accuracy.
- Remember their name and file their contact info. You've just created a contact that is now a part of your network. Don't take that for granted!
- If you take the time to really listen to people, they will remember you. Remember that this is just another person who wants to be respected and heard.
Most of the time, informational interviews are used while job searching. People looking for a new job or to change their career path seek out others in those job fields and positions and ask them about their experiences there. However, that doesn't mean you can't take the advice given for those types of informational interviews and transfer them to another type. Here are several places that have excellent guides on informational interviews in the context of job searching that can be applied to other types as well:
- UC Berkeley's Career Center: https://career.berkeley.edu/Info/InfoInterview
- Harvard Business Law: https://hbr.org/2016/02/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-an-informational-interview
- This article by the Muse: https://www.themuse.com/advice/3-steps-to-a-perfect-informational-interview