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Thank-you noteWhen you’re trying to learn more about potential LIS jobs, employers, or careers, few options are better than going straight to the source, otherwise known as having an information interview. They’re one of the easiest and fastest ways to increase your career smarts – even when you’re not looking for a job. Why? Because these informal conversations can provide the perfect “reality check” for what you may have read or heard about a particular employer, industry, or career path  – an insider’s view of how the world really looks from those in the trenches.

To max out the benefit of any information interview, however, you want to make sure you do these five things:

Do your homework – in advance.  You don’t want to waste your contact’s time with dumb questions, so it’s up to you to research the basics in advance – know as much as you can about the organization, its competition, and trends in its industry. This will help you frame intelligent questions and also impress your interviewee with your diligence. When you can begin a question with “One of the things I found in my reading about XYZ, Inc. was…” you automatically signal the person across the desk or table that you’ve invested serious time in preparing for the discussion – a clear sign of respect and professionalism.

Prepare a list of thoughtful questions.  Here’s where you’ll assemble those intelligent questions that came out of your research. Think through what information or insights you’re trying to get to, and why. Is the goal to help you make a decision about a possible career path? Then perhaps you’ll want to include questions about where your interviewee sees this career heading. Where are areas of expansion (or contraction)? What companies does your contact think most highly of for this type of work? What additional skills might be needed? In what direction would your interviewee hope to see his or her career develop next?

Follow up diligently on any suggestions.  You’re asking someone to take the time to talk with you, so it’s critical that you follow up on any ideas, contacts, recommendations, etc. your contact makes. Again, this is your way of taking their investment of time and interest in you seriously, and letting them know that you do. Then be sure to circle back to them when you’ve followed through to thank them for their suggestions and let them know how things turned out (good outcomes here only!).

Be appreciative and positive.  There’s nothing worse from an interviewee’s perspective than having an informational interview with someone who’s negative, not really engaged, unprepared, or otherwise painful to deal with. As someone who’s given many informational interviews, trust me when I say that a positive and interested attitude on your part will bring out the best responses on your contact’s part. (Responses that may include offers to meet up in the future, mentor you, recommend you to the HR manager, introduce you to colleagues at other organizations, etc.)

And of course, send a thank-you note within 24 hours of your interview. Although people are still debating whether that note should be hand-written/snail-mail or e-mail, the consensus seems to be that hand-written is most favored by older recipients, e-mail by younger ones. But mostly you can’t go wrong if you just make sure to send any kind of thank-you note.

Max out your networking and branding opportunity.  Assuming you’ve been charming, smart, attentive, and responsive during your discussion (translation: your interviewee thinks you’re terrific), you want to make sure that you make the most of the networking and branding opportunity you’ve just created. Reach out to your contact post-interview to connect on LinkedIn. When you send that thank-you note, mention that you’d be happy to return the favor by being of any assistance useful in the future. Stay in touch on a regular (perhaps quarterly) basis by reaching out and sharing information, resources, or connections you feel might be useful for this person.

The most important thing here is to make sure that your conduct during the informational interview is professional and positive, as noted above. This will help you build the type of professional reputation or brand you want to have associated with you. But also, see if there are other ways you might be able to beef up your professional visibility and reputation by sharing several key (non-proprietary) points you learned from your interviewee that could benefit others in their careers using whatever social media tools you prefer. Consider posting a discussion topic or question in a relevant LinkedIn group that demonstrates both your knowledge and professional-level interest.

Bottom line: informational interviews are an invaluable way to continue to grow your LIS career knowledge. If you prepare in advance and then follow through diligently, however, they can also be a terrific way to help build your professional network, reputation and visibility.