Mention the word “networking” and many people think of a schmoozy social event where success is measured in the number of business cards collected. But, a business card is only as good as the relationship behind it. Exchanging a tiny piece of cardboard will not get you far if that person does not know you.
In contrast, an informational interview allows you to sit down with someone and have a more in-depth interaction. If you’ve never conducted one, here is how it works: Contact someone who works in an industry or company of interest and ask for information about their career path, their company and any advice they have for someone just starting out in their industry. Simple, right?
Info interviews make networking less intimidating. They allow you to initiate connections with the work world on your own terms. Here are some easy steps to getting started:
Reach out to your college career center or alumni association to identify alums in your areas of interest. Also think about your parents’ friends, your friends’ parents, contacts from faculty members and people you’ve met at previous internships or jobs. Check LinkedIn for people in your network or start a conversation with someone new on Twitter.
Make an introduction
Once you have identified some possible contacts, draft a brief introductory email. Keep the request focused on information-gathering. Asking someone to take 20-30 minutes of their day to chat about their career is reasonable (and possibly, flattering); flat-out asking them for an internship or job lead is not. People love to talk about themselves! Take advantage.
Set up a meeting
Face-to-face is best, but phone works, too. Make sure you are as flexible as possible with your schedule since the person you’re going to meet with is going out of their way to help you.
A to-do list for info interview preparation:
- Research your contact. Check LinkedIn, do a Google search, read their blog, etc.
- Research the company
- Review current industry trends and news
- Prepare questions in advance. You requested the meeting; be prepared to facilitate the conversation.
- Try to find out how people dress at your contacts’ workplace and dress appropriately. Always over-dress if you don’t know.
- Be prepared to talk about yourself. Questions about what you’re studying, why you’re interested in the industry or company, previous work/intern experience and/or extracurricular involvement on campus are all fair game.
Conduct the informational interview
Tips to make sure the interview goes smoothly:
- Arrive a few minutes early
- If meeting for coffee or lunch, expect to treat the other person unless they insist
- Mention your research when asking questions but don’t be creepy. For example, you might say: “I saw on LinkedIn you used to work at XYZ Company. Can you tell me more about your career path and what brought you to your current position?” Do not venture into creepiness by getting too personal. For instance, if you saw pictures of their kids on Facebook, you shouldn’t ask for an update on their kid’s potty training (unless they bring it up first).
- Respect their time. Make sure to stick to the time limit you both agreed upon when scheduling the meeting. If your contact is long-winded, make mention of the time and ask if they prefer to continue the conversation or to schedule another meeting.
- Listen for any possible way in which you might be able to help them or do them a favor. Relationship-building is about finding ways to help others.
- Recognize that chemistry (or lack thereof) between two people varies. You might make an awesome connection. You may have the most awkward interaction of your life. Or something in between. All are possible.
- Be sure to thank your contact at the end of your meeting.
Always, always, always send a thank you note after the meeting. Be sure to keep in touch over time. Relationships don’t just happen, they require effort. Reach out to your contacts once in awhile to see how they’re doing.
For some people, meeting new people and initiating new relationships comes naturally. Thinking about networking in a step-by-step way foreign. But if the word “networking” makes you cringe, a well-thought out approach can lead to more comfort and more success with establishing connections in the professional world.