Let’s face it—networking can be awkward.
If you were completely honest in your networking ventures, you might say to a mentor, expert, or more senior colleague, “You’re more important than me, and you have something I want—gimme!” Not exactly an approach I’d recommend.
Then again, if you’re too timid, you might walk away from a networking conversation having missed an opportunity.
This is especially true with informational interview-type meetings, where you sit down with a relative stranger over coffee to talk about an intensely personal matter: your career—and how the other person can help it in some way.
But once you’ve scored one of these one-on-one networking meetings, you can make the most of it with a little planning and preparation. Here are a few smart strategies to get you started.
1. Have a Point
The person you’re sitting down with isn’t a mind reader. He or she probably knows generally that you want a job and that he or she generally might be able to help you. But shaping the conversation beyond that is your responsibility.
So, think about what, specifically, you want to get out of the meeting. Do you want to know whether you’d actually like a certain job or company—or whether you’re qualified for a job? Do you want insider tips from someone whose shoes you’d like to step into? Or do you just want to get your name and face out there as many times as possible?
Know the avenue you’re going down, and then make that very clear at the start of the meeting. Try, “Thanks so much for meeting with me, Jason. I want to pick your brain on what it’s like to work for Facebook,” or “Lauren, I’d love to hear more about your position to see if it might be the right fit for me.” With this information, your contact can actually help—instead of sitting there wondering, “What exactly does this person want?”
2. Get on Google
Job-hunting can be a little too automated these days. We often relegate our job search to browsing postings, whisking out e-mails into the cyber ether, and praying for a response.
But your one-on-one meeting is your big chance to humanize this process. So, don’t waste someone’s time with basic background questions that you can find on Google—instead, learn more about this person beforehand. Research his or her career path and the ideas and projects he or she they truly cares about.
Then, draft a list of questions to ask at your meeting, ensuring that anything you ask will help you gain insight you can’t get from automatic searches on your computer at home. Here are a few examples:
- What do you wish you had known when you started out?
- How did you choose this industry, job, or company over others?
- It seems like most positions in the field require a certain amount of expertise in [a particular skillset]. Is this something I can learn on the job, or do I have to build more experience first?
- If I had an interview this week at your company, what advice would you give me?
- What are the best and worst parts of your job?
- What do you think about when you’re put in the position of a hiring manager?
- Given everything we’ve discussed, are there other companies or people I should I be researching?
3. Don’t Be Selfish
Never forget the framework of the meeting—this person is doing you a favor, and you should do everything you can to make it as convenient for him or her as possible. This means: Don’t hold the time hostage, don’t talk more than the other person, and don’t stick an unsolicited resume in anyone’s face. As a general rule, you should be speaking 30% of the time, maximum.
At the same time, it’s a personal conversation, not an interrogation. It’s okay to talk about hobbies, favorite books, and common interests. If someone likes you, he or she is more likely to remember you—and more likely to recommend you for future positions.
4. Be Thankful
No, I don’t mean write a blasé cookie-cutter follow-up thank you e-mail. Everyone does that.
Instead, think of this meeting as the foundation of a prosperous and fruitful professional acquaintance (at least) or relationship (at best). In other words, don’t just have one meeting and then just drop off the face of the earth. Feel free to send your contact an interesting article or a follow-up note a few weeks down the line about the progress you’ve made in your job search. Highlight one or two of the things that you used from your meeting that really helped.
Of course, you’re not best friends, and meeting someone one time doesn’t give you license to flood his or her inbox. But do keep your contacts in the loop—if they agreed to meet with you, I guarantee that they’ll love to hear how they have helped.