To get the most out of your next informational interview, follow these rules about keeping the focus on the company or overall industry — and don't ask about a specific job opening.

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One of the best ways to break into a new industry — whether you’re right out of college or a professional looking to switch careers — is to start with a simple conversation: an informational interview.

This type of networking differs from a job interview in that you are merely seeking opinions about a company or profession and not about finding a job at that company — even if that is your ultimate goal. Informational interviews are much shorter and more casual interactions. They can be conducted over coffee or in a short office visit, and are usually 20 to 30 minutes.

Assuming you have chosen a field in which you would like to work, here are a few basic rules to follow:

Scour your contacts. While cold-emailing a potential interviewee can sometimes yield results, it’s often best to start with a contact you know. Once you specify a few companies you think would be the best places to start, go through your LinkedIn contacts and see how close a connection you have to employees there, preferably those with some supervisory experience.

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Try to meet in person. Many of these interviews can be done over the phone or via email. But a face-to-face meeting is always preferable, as it gives you a chance to see the work environment firsthand. Remember to be flexible and respectful of the interviewee’s valuable time.

Do your research. Never assume you can walk in, sip coffee and just wing it. To save everybody time, extensively research the background of the company and understand its current situation. Look over the interviewee’s profile on LinkedIn and come up with some questions about his or her career history. The more you know going in, the more the interviewee will be likely to share insights with you.

Make it about them. If there’s a Golden Rule of informational interviews, it’s never, ever ask the interviewee directly for a job. You set up this meeting on the pretense that it was a discussion about the industry, so don’t launch into a spiel about your own credentials. Keep the focus on the interviewee. For example:

  • “What is your typical workday like?”
  • “How and why did you get started in the business?”
  • “What do you like most/least about the job?”
  • “What are the biggest challenges facing the business right now?”

Follow up. After thanking the interviewee immediately afterward, keep the lines of communication open in case that person wants to share any information in the future. Also, to keep your momentum going, ask for the name of a colleague or another person in the profession whom you should contact.

Randy Woods is a writer and editor in the Puget Sound business publishing arena and a veteran of the local job-search scene. Email him at randywoods67@gmail.com.