Networking. For the daring and outgoing, the thought may conjure visions of conference cocktail parties and evoke a sense of adventure or the possibility of an exciting professional change. For the more reserved, however, simply hearing the word “networking” is enough to put us in a state of nervous tension. Individuals who fall into the latter category may avoid the practice altogether, to the detriment of their career development. Fortunately, there is a more intimate and yet highly effective networking strategy that can work wonders for the more introverted among us.
The informational interview is an underutilized practice that is excellent for building your network in a more personal, productive, and powerful way. If you tend to blossom in cozier settings, the informational interview is for you. Essentially, it is an invitation to a professional to meet with you briefly, preferably in a relaxed setting such as a coffee shop, so that you might learn a bit more about his or her career path and experiences. Your coffee companion ideally works at an organization you admire, possesses a degree you are curious about, and/or has a career path that interests you. The purpose of this meeting is NOT to ask for a job, even if you are in the hunt for one; rather, your goal should be to gain information, advice, or referrals from someone who has more expertise and knowledge about a particular field.
If the prospect of inviting strangers to have coffee with you seems daunting, you are not alone. You may be wondering, “How do I find people to invite for informational interviews? What would I say once they are in front of me? And why would a busy professional take the time to speak with me?” This leads us to what I hereby propose as “The Five Ps” in conducting informational interviews:
- Be positive. Networking inherently requires putting yourself out there, and the informational interview is no exception. Often we talk ourselves out of networking because we assume that our requests are a nuisance, or we feel guilty about “using” others. The truth is that everyone has benefited career-wise from the help of others, and networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships; while your new contact may be in a position to give you a professional boost now, he or she may enlist professional advice from you in the future. It is never a bother to express your interest in another’s background, and people are often quite flattered and willing to help out a less experienced professional with advice—after all, someone else likely did the same for them in the past. Finally, no matter how true it may be, do not convey that you are unhappy with your current position even if you are implying that you want more. In other words, be pleasant and personable.
- Be proactive. Reach out to the people who represent the proverbial higher rungs of the ladder in your field. Tap into your current network by using LinkedIn and write a brief, polite message explaining who you are, expressing your interest in the professional’s background, and asking whether he or she has time to meet briefly over coffee (or any other libation of choice). When reaching out to a professional you do not know, the key is to lead with what you have in common with the person, whether you have gone to the same school, have a mutual friend, or have a passion for a common cause.
- Be prepared. Once you’ve firmed up the time and place, it is time to prepare. Get more familiar with your new contact and obtain a better grasp of major organizations and opportunities in the field; you want to come across as curious but also generally well-informed. In addition, consider what you hope to get out of this meeting. Do you want to learn about the day-to-day realities of your new contact’s particular job? Get a sense of his or her company’s culture? Better understand how the field impacts one’s work-life balance? Get the person’s take on the pros and cons of pursuing graduate studies? Heading into the informational interview with a list of clear, focused questions will ensure that the experience is a productive one. Remember the context, however; this is a conversation, not an interrogation, so avoid a rapid-fire succession of questions. Create continuity and context for your questions within a quasi-casual conversation. The counterbalance to this casualness brings us to our next “P” …
- Be professional. Although the informational interview is not nearly as formal as a job interview, it is your introduction to a more experienced professional, so be sure to present yourself in a polished manner. Arrive at your meeting location 10 to 15 minutes early, dress in business-casual attire or better, and be comfortable with your talking points. Most importantly, smile! Being your natural, friendly self will go a long way toward forming a positive connection with your new contact. Don’t forget that as the requester of the meeting, coffee is on you! And lastly, be respectful of the individual’s time and appreciative of his or her willingness to share knowledge with you. Following up via email or message to thank your new contact and ask for permission to keep in touch will engender good feelings and encourage continued contact.
- Be patient. Building a network takes time, and if you are looking to switch jobs, finding that right opportunity takes even longer. Remain in touch with your new contacts on a regular basis; if you update them whenever you want to share news, congratulate them on promotions, or solicit their thoughts on an interesting article, you will be fostering a productive new relationship. And whatever you do, keep networking. Not everyone you reach out to will have the time or inclination to meet, but the more individuals you contact, the greater the opportunities.
Networking does not have to be the domain of extroverts or social butterflies. Networking can work for everyone, but it is critical that you find and practice strategies that feel comfortable to you. Try your luck with the informational interview for a more personalized and meaningful experience in building your professional network.
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