Pretty much every piece of networking advice out there tells you that you should set up informational interviews with the people you’re interested in meeting. But, let’s face it—many of us still push this task to the backburner.
Why? Well, for starters, this process can be nerve-wracking. Getting in touch with a perfect stranger can often feel overly aggressive, and that first meeting can be awkward at best—you feel as if you should be waiting at that coffee shop table with a single red rose.
But, beyond that, I think many of us struggle with what benefits are directly related to these sorts of meetings.
Most of the time, you don’t walk away with a job offer or the one key thing you need to be successful in your career. So, what do you get? Another LinkedIn connection that you can halfheartedly congratulate when you see news of her recent promotion? Big deal.
Not so fast. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, informational interviews can be a huge asset—whether you’re just getting started, actively growing in your career, or are looking to make a change. However, you don’t just reap the benefits by simply showing up and buying coffee.
Here’s what you need to know to extract as much value as possible from those oh-so-necessary informational interviews.
1. Choose the best contacts.
This process starts well before you actually show up to that meeting—you need to be sure to pick the right people to chat with in the first place.
Of course, there’s never anything wrong with expanding your web of professional contacts. But, if you want to walk away from that conversation feeling like you got some really beneficial takeaways, you’re going to need to be a little selective with who you reach out to.
Sure, maybe that person you found on LinkedIn works at your dream company. But, she’s only been there for a few months and she’s in a completely different department than the one you’re hoping to gain entry. Is she the best person for you to learn from? Or, would you be better off continuing your search to find a more relevant department head—or even a hiring manager?
Far too often, people who actually heed the advice to schedule informational interviews end up firing off emails and invitations to anybody and everybody. But, if you’re truly hoping for a valuable experience, put in the elbow grease to find contacts that can actually benefit you in some way.
2. Have a plan.
All of the best and most productive meetings start with an agenda. And, your informational interview is no different.
This doesn’t mean you need to put together anything formal. However, you should have a clear idea of what exactly you’re aiming to get out of this meeting. Do some research about this person and his or her field and then generate a list of questions you want to be sure to touch on.
That way, you can head into that conversation with a refined focus on what sorts of things you want to discuss—meaning you’ll be able to get your most critical questions answered.
3. Make your goal clear.
Alright, so now you have a good handle on what you want to accomplish during your informational interview. Your next step? Share that with the other person!
Before your meeting, send him or her an email reiterating the subject you’re eager to gather more information on. You can even include some of the questions that you came up with in the previous step.
Yes, you’ll definitely want to talk this all over in person (so make it clear that you don’t expect a response via email!). But, laying this groundwork ahead of time will help him or her adequately prepare for your conversation. That way, you’ll get thoughtful and comprehensive answers to your questions—without having to put that person in the hot seat.
4. Keep in touch.
Informational interviews are the most beneficial when they serve as the start to a solid professional relationship.
Maybe that person from your dream company tells you that they aren’t hiring right now—but, that doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future! And, if you can stay in touch and continue to build a positive bond? Chances are, you’ll be top of the list when a relevant position opens up.
This means that you can’t get your questions answered, pay the check, and then go your separate ways. Instead, you should plan to keep in touch. Connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, or any other relevant platform. Send the occasional email to share an interesting article or congratulate her on the arrival of her new baby.
You don’t need to stay in constant contact (we all get enough emails anyway!). Checking in every now and then will help you forge a beneficial relationship and keep you top of mind for any future opportunities.
5. Use information.
If you follow those four steps, you’re sure to walk away from your informational interview with tons of enlightening insights. But, now what?
This is where far too many people fall short. They gather all sorts of valuable direction and information, but then fail to ever actually implement it.
Maybe that contact told you how much this specific book shaped their career, yet you neglected to ever actually purchase it and give it a read yourself. Or, perhaps you learned that you really need this certain skill or certification to push you forward in your career. Yet, you never take the steps to obtain that.
If you don’t use these conversations as stepping stones to action, your informational interviews will always generate just that: information. It’s up to you to put in the legwork and take the next steps—nobody’s going to do that for you.
Informational interviews can be a huge asset to you in your career, as long as you know how to approach them correctly. After all, you can’t just show up and expect them to pay off. So, put these five steps to work, and you’re sure to finally see (and use!) the value in these conversations.