Recently, a professional contact I’d only interacted with online requested a meeting in person. Which was great—except that she didn’t tell me what it was about (only vaguely describing it as “wanting to get to know me better”).
I set the meeting up, but I wasn’t sure how to prepare, what to bring, or what to think. I ended up walking into the room, blindly reading the situation, and feeling incredibly awkward the entire time. Not surprisingly, the meeting didn’t go as well as it could have.
From this experience, I learned that it’s always a good idea to go into a networking meeting with a goal. While it may seem strange to think so deliberately about a short meeting with someone, having a goal in mind keeps you and your contact focused and ensures that you both really get something out of it. (Because—let’s be real here—no one wants to feel like his or her time is being wasted.)
Better yet, by telling someone why you’re interested in meeting now, rather than just setting up a random “coffee date,” you also add a sense of urgency that wouldn’t exist otherwise (for example, if you mention that you need to apply to jobs by a certain time and want to get advice about a particular company, that adds a time component).
So, what does a good goal look like? It might be to pick an expert’s brain about a challenge you’re facing at work. Or to get some ideas for a new project you’re getting ready to start. Or to look for ways to collaborate. Or to learn more about that person’s career or the company he or she works for. Even a “get to know you” goal is fine, as long as you explain why, à la “I think your work is really cool, and since we work in similar spaces, it would be great to know each other better and share ideas!”
While you might feel a little weird defining a goal like this, doing so will allow you to come prepared with any thoughts, ideas, or materials if you need them for your meeting before you show up. For example, if someone you met at an industry event wants to pick your brain on a new marketing campaign she’s working on, wouldn’t you like to know that ahead of time so you can give it some thought in advance instead of coming in and trying to think of things right off the top of your head?
If you’re the one initiating, just give a brief explanation as to why you’re hoping to meet. For example: “I’m starting to think about my next career move and think that your diverse path gives you a lot of insight into the [industry] space. I’d love to chat about your experiences.” If you’re being asked to meet up, it can feel awkward to ask what the goal is, but even a simple, “Is there anything you’d like me to prepare or think about before we grab coffee?” can help you get some answers.
Of course, once you’re in the meeting, it’s fine to stray from the topic and talk about the latest industry news or how things at work or in life have been—after all, you want to build a real connection with this person. Just make sure that, in addition to these extras, you accomplish your original aim.
Framing a networking goal doesn’t have to come across as forced, but it definitely helps you stay on track. And hey, it could lead to something even bigger and more exciting in the future.