I’m a big believer in the magic of informational interviews. They present an awesome opportunity to connect with new people, learn something you didn’t know before, identify things you can improve, and just generally broaden your career horizons.
But—let’s face it—valuable or not, informational interviews can still be a little bit uncomfortable. Even though I often set them up to actually get information (crazy, I know), many people do it to try to get their foot in the door. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it does mean the the person I’m talking with often assumes I’m only there in order to secure a job at some point in the near future.
And, if you’re like me and hoping to get the most out of an informational interview, that sense of awkwardness and unease will only get in your way. So, here are four tips to help you make that conversation as comfortable and helpful as possible.
1. Be Clear With Your Expectations
It’s important that you set the appropriate tone right from the get-go. So, when requesting the meeting, ensure that you’re explicitly clear with what you expect to get out of your conversation.
Before drafting an email to invite that person out for coffee, take some time to identify specific things you’re hoping to learn from this person. Is he in an industry you’re unfamiliar with and would like to find out more about? Did you see her conduct a presentation at a conference, and are interested in hearing some of her insightful public speaking tips? Did he make a career jump similar to the one you’re currently contemplating?
Determining these goals is one thing. But, in order to take some of the discomfort out of your meeting, it’s important that you actually share these expectations. Instead of writing something general along the lines of, “I’d love to get together and find out more about what you do,” try something more targeted like, “I saw on LinkedIn that you changed from a career in marketing to a journalism position. I’ve been considering a similar career switch, and I’d love to find out more about what your transition was like!”
Not only will this illustrate that you really are seeking information without any ulterior motives. But, it will also give that person time adequate time to prepare to thoroughly answer your questions.
2. Come Armed With Questions
Once you’ve determined exactly what you’re aiming to get out of your meeting, doing some research and drafting a few specific questions you’d like answered are the natural next steps.
You definitely don’t want to end up staring at each other in silence over your mugs of coffee. And, nothing’s more awkward than trying to stretch out a conversation about the weather for 20 minutes while you attempt to gulp down your scorching hot tea as fast as humanly possible so that you can get the heck out of there!
So, save yourself some panic (and a burnt mouth) by being prepared with some different conversation starters and topics you’d like more information on.
Perhaps you’re considering a similar career and want some insight into what the day-to-day job duties entail. Maybe you’re wondering if a master’s degree would be beneficial in your chosen field. Or, perhaps you’d love more information on the top skills that are essential in order to succeed in your desired position.
Whatever questions you want answered, jot them down. Having these predetermined topics and questions will not only fill any uncomfortable conversational lulls, but also ensure that your meeting is incredibly helpful and valuable!
3. Meet Somewhere Neutral
If you’re charged with the task of picking the time and place for your meeting, be forewarned that you’re always better off choosing a neutral location. While it might seem convenient to simply meet at the person’s office for a chat, your get-together can easily start to feel like a traditional job interview, rather than a casual, informative conversation.
Instead of sitting down in his or her office conference room, suggest meeting at a local cafe for an afternoon cup of coffee. It sends the message that you’re looking forward to an informal and helpful talk, rather than trying to get your foot in the door of the company—literally.
Sure, it might seem like an unnecessary hassle to ask that person to leave his or her office. But, it’ll save you from that awkward period of sitting nervously in the office lobby and waiting for your name to be called—which is exactly what you do for a job interview.
4. Set the Tone for a Professional Relationship
Of course, your main goal of the meeting is to get your questions answered and learn some more valuable information about a particular industry or career field. But, aside from that, you should also make it your mission to lay the groundwork for a solid, lasting professional relationship.
Rather than what you should do before or during your get-together, this tip has more to do with how you should react once the meeting’s ended. Completely halting communication once the informational interview is over can make it seem like you were disappointed in the outcome of your meeting. So, make an effort to keep in touch!
Muse writer Lily Herman offers a great tip for naturally touching base with professional contacts in a way that’s both genuine and beneficial. Every now and then, email an article that you think that person would take interest in. It keeps the lines of communication open, and also helps to cement a positive professional relationship.
Yes, informational interviews can definitely have an element of awkwardness. But, these quick tips should help you kick that unease to the curb and get the most out of your meeting—without that panicked coffee chugging.
Photo of coffee mugs courtesy of Shutterstock.