In my previous blog post, I mentioned the importance of making and maintaining connections within the journalism industry. I am the first person in my family to be a journalist, which means that I had to build my professional network from scratch. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that you can develop all the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed as a journalist, but if you don’t have a robust network of connections in the industry, landing your first or next gig may be more challenging. Like I always say, it’s all about what you know, who you know, and who knows you.
One of the ways I’ve built networking relationships over the years is by inviting journalism and media professionals for an informational interview. An informational interview is an informal conversation with someone about their professional journey. To be clear, it’s not about asking the person to hire you or point you to any job openings. Rather, it’s a fantastic opportunity to learn more about a career or field that piques your interest.
Of course, this is by no means limited to the media industry. I encourage all young professionals to coordinate at least one informational interview to learn more about the different pathways you can take to land your dream job, the most in-demand skills in your industry, and how you can stand out as a prospective job applicant.
In this blog post, I want to guide you through the informational interview process from start to finish, including how to reach out to someone, how to prepare, questions you can ask during the conversation, how to follow up, and how you can use this newly-forged connection in the future.
Remember that there are no strict rules to informational interviews; that is, use this blog post as a guide, not as a step-by-step manual. The purpose of the informational interview is to gain valuable career insights while making a new connection in the industry, and this can look different based on the person you want to speak with, how your conversation goes, and the industry you’re hoping to enter.
Below are the five topics I will cover in this blog post:
- How to set up an informational interview
- How to prepare for an informational interview
- Questions to ask during the informational interview
- How to follow up
- How to maintain your connection
How to set up an informational interview
Find a few people you’d be interested in speaking with.
This is one of the most fun parts of the informational interview process, so feel free to dream big! Is there anyone you can think of who has your dream role? Do you follow anyone on Twitter or any other social media platform whose job piques your interest? When you hear the words “role model,” what are some of the names that come to mind?
In the past, I’ve reached out to notable news anchors, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, retired writers, and seasoned news editors who currently work or have previously worked for NBC News, The Associated Press, CNN, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Bloomberg, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle, and other local, national, and international news outlets. No one is off limits, so think far and wide!
Find their contact information.
Fortunately, many journalists have their professional email addresses in their social media bios or on the website of their employer. However, if you can’t find their email address anywhere, check out their website for a “Contact me” page, DM them on Instagram or Twitter, or send them a message or an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.
Reach out to them.
Whether you are sending an email, a Twitter DM, or a LinkedIn invite, it’s important to introduce yourself with your full name and current role (or major if you are still in college), briefly explain why you’re reaching out, and include your availability for the next few days or weeks. Depending on the person’s location, you may also need to include your time zone. You can also indicate whether you would prefer to meet in person or chat via Zoom or phone call.
If you are sending an email, I recommend attaching a copy of your resume (preferably a PDF). That way, they can learn a little more about you and tailor their answers during the informational interview to best suit your needs.
Here’s an example of a message I would send as a college student:
Hi, [name]! My name is Roselyn Romero and I am currently an undergraduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo majoring in journalism. I’ve been following your work for several years now, and I’m interested in pursuing a career in the journalism industry as a reporter. If you have some spare time this week or next, I would love to speak with you on the phone for about 30 minutes to learn more about your experience working in news. I will be available Monday through Friday after 1:30 p.m. PST. I am attaching a copy of my resume to this email. Thank you so much for your time!
If you’re sending an invitation to connect with someone on LinkedIn, feel free to make the message shorter to meet the 300-character limit.
If they haven’t gotten back to you within a week, follow up.
I recommend waiting for at least a week before sending a follow-up message. Keep in mind that everyone has different schedules, so just because someone isn’t getting back to you in a timely manner, doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t want to talk to you. It could simply mean that they’re busy, so try not to take it too personally.
Also, be cognizant of any busy seasons within the industry. For example, the days leading up to a presidential election may be particularly taxing for reporters, so do your best to be flexible if they need to reschedule or are running late.
In your follow-up message, be courteous and professional. If your availability has changed, let them know. And if you reached out to them via email, reply to your initial email rather than creating a new email thread.
Here’s an example of a follow-up message I would send:
Hi, [name]! I hope you’ve been well. I reached out to you last week about scheduling a time to chat as I am interested in pursuing a career in the media industry and would love to learn more about your experience as a news reporter. I will be available Monday through Wednesday after 1:30 p.m., Thursday from 9 a.m.-10:30 a.m., and Friday after 11 a.m. PST. Thank you so much!
How to prepare for an informational interview
If you’ve successfully scheduled a time to chat with someone, congrats! Cold-messaging a person you look up to can be intimidating, so give yourself a pat on the back for taking initiative.
Before your informational interview, you want to be prepared. Research as much as you can about the person you will be speaking with. You want to walk into the conversation knowing their job title, the company they work for (or if they are self-employed), and where they went to college (if that is important to you). If you’re not sure how to pronounce their name, search for videos, stories, or interviews where they introduce themselves. This is also the perfect time to come up with questions you would want to ask them.
During the interview, try not to ask questions that you can easily find the answers to with a quick Google search as this can make you seem unprepared and unprofessional. Instead, think of questions that would be particularly useful or relevant to you, such as what skills you should be developing now as a college student or how you can land your first job out of grad school.
Questions to ask during the informational interview
Below are several questions I would ask during the informational interview. While I strongly suggest bringing up some or all of these questions, remember that this is supposed to be a conversation, not a script. In other words, you should ask follow-up questions, listen intently to their responses, and make the person you’re interviewing feel at ease.
- How did you know you wanted to pursue this career path?
- Tell me more about how you started working in this industry.
- Did you go to college? If so, what did you major/minor in?
- What are some courses or topics you studied in college that have helped you succeed in this career?
- Did college prepare you to work in this position/field?
- Are there any clubs or activities you did in college that prepared you to work in this position/field?
- Is grad school necessary to succeed in this role/industry?
- What are some hard and soft skills I should develop now if I want to be successful in this industry?
- What are some of the most in-demand technical skills that most employers are looking for in job candidates?
- What are the pros and cons of your job/industry? What do you like/dislike about it?
- What does a typical day/week/month look like for you?
- If you could give your younger self any career advice, what would you say?
- How has your job impacted your personal or family life and/or the decisions you make related to your personal or family life?
- What kinds of personalities do well in this industry/profession?
- What are some things you wish you would have known before stepping into your current role?
- Are there any questions I should be asking you that I haven’t asked yet?
- Do you know anyone else in this field who would be willing to speak with me about their career journey?
- What is the best way to reach you if I have any other questions or need extra advice?
Above all, let your conversation flow smoothly. You might not have time to ask all of the aforementioned questions, and that’s OK. Be present, take notes, and do more listening than talking.
How to follow up
Yay! You’ve successfully completed the informational interview and made a new connection in the process. But you aren’t done yet — you should always follow up the interview with a note expressing your gratitude and how you would like to keep in touch. This is one of the most overlooked, yet important steps of an informational interview. It lets the interviewee know that you’re appreciative of their time and advice, as well as that you want to keep your professional relationship alive throughout the rest of your career journey.
There are two main ways you can follow up with someone after an informational interview. The most common way is to send an email thanking the person for their time and advice. Be sure to send your email within 24 hours so that your conversation is still fresh in their mind.
Another method of following up is to send a handwritten card. Obviously, this will take a bit more time and effort than simply sending an email because you’ll need to ask the person for their home or work address and wait for your note to be delivered. But it’s one of the most sure-fire ways to make yourself more memorable.
While I don’t recommend following up with someone exclusively via social media, I still think it’s worth mentioning. When I say “exclusively,” I mean that social media should not be the only way you follow up with them; rather, it should be an additional form of following up. So, if you want to reach out to them on Twitter, Facebook, or any other social media platform, remember to first send an email or a handwritten note, and then connect on social media. In my opinion, this is more professional and provides more ways to keep in touch.
Regardless of the medium you choose for your follow-up message, you should bring up one or two points from your conversation that you found especially useful. This will demonstrate that you were listening carefully and make it more likely that the person will remember you.
Here is an example of a follow-up email I would send after an informational interview:
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today about your professional journey. It was a pleasure getting to know you and hearing more about how you got your start in the journalism industry. It was especially cool to find out that we went to the same university (go, Mustangs!) and that you enjoy powerlifting as much as I do.
I look forward to connecting with you again in the future. Feel free to reach out via call/text at 555-555-5555 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to maintain your connection
Keeping your networking relationships alive can not only help you find career opportunities and excel in the industry, but it can also open doors for you to offer support when they need it, establishing a mutually beneficial connection that isn’t just one-sided.
A great way to maintain your connection is to reach out to them every few weeks or months with any updates. For instance, you can email them when you start a new job, send them a story you recently wrote that you’re proud of, or let them know that you recently graduated from college and are looking for opportunities. If you need advice on making a career change or want someone to proofread your resume and cover letter, you can ask them for help.
You can also message them when they post any career updates. I like to reach out to my mentors when they win an award, get a promotion, move to a new city, start a family, or retire. Even commenting “Congratulations!” on one of their LinkedIn posts can mean a lot to them.
Also, feel free to ask them to chat again. Whether it’s in person, on the phone, or via Zoom, reconnecting once in a while will fortify the relationship you’ve built and open doors of opportunities that you may not find otherwise.
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