Informational Interviews: The Power of a Cup of Coffee

having-coffeeNetworking. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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” …
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Adia Tucker, MSEd, LMHC, Career Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Yolanda

    April 20th, 2015 at 7:03 AM

    Having coffee is THE best icebreaker! How many times have you just started having a random conversation with a stranger in a coffee shop? I have met many great people in exactly that way. My daughter hates that little idle chat, but me, I think it’s kind of fun and a great way to meet new people.

  • Lydia

    April 20th, 2015 at 1:50 PM

    Daunting? Yes! Helpful in making those connections that otherwise you might not have made? Yes!

  • Mika

    April 21st, 2015 at 3:51 AM

    You have to be willing to put yourself out there and give something new a chance in order to find out more about who you are and your own needs.
    This may not be the most comfortable setting for you, but if it is done in a way that is one and one and unscripted it can be a moment where you meet someone who could bring a lot of great things into your life.

  • tim

    April 21st, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    much of my own discomfort with settings and situations like this I know stem from my own discomfort with myself. I am not comfortable being with me sometimes so how is anyone else supposed to be comfortable talking with me?
    I am well aware that I focus too much on what my short comings are rather than focusing on what my strengths are. That is hard for me to get past/
    Lots of issues with insecurity so the idea of sitting and mingling with strangers even for just the chance to make this connection and network is a little threatening to me.

  • Carolina

    April 22nd, 2015 at 1:36 PM

    Even though you might not yet know this person, it is still a good idea to have some things that you wish to talk about and know a little about them ahead of time.
    Always a good idea to do your homework first

  • Bryan

    April 23rd, 2015 at 1:40 PM

    This could be a really great way for a young college graduate to get their foot in the door somewhere where they think that they may be interested in working or even just learning a little more about a specific job field. I have found over the last few years and probably longer than that that the key to getting a good job is not going through the help wanted ads but it is all about who you know and the connections that you are able to make. This could be the perfect in for someone.

  • Lucia

    April 24th, 2015 at 9:45 AM

    Above all else, don’t invite someone to something like this and determine that it is not a professional meeting!

  • gabby

    April 25th, 2015 at 11:34 AM

    So I am guessing that you start with people that you already know just a little even if it is just in passing. Otherwise I am not sure if this is meant for you to just start making cold calls and inviting people out. Wouldn’t someone think that that was a little weird?

  • Krisha

    April 26th, 2015 at 9:51 AM

    There really isn’t much of a point of even doing any of this if you are not wiling to go into it with an open mind and a positive attitude. Without those things, then this is not going to make that much of a difference to you in the overall outcome. Networking is all about making connections with those people who could help you later on. They are are not really going to be all that willing to step out on a limb for you if you don’t make sure that you are positive and full of light and energy to share when you have your meeting.

  • Adia

    July 19th, 2015 at 4:37 PM

    Hello Gabby,

    Regarding your question about reaching out to people you know vs. cold calling strangers, I really believe that both can work – it all depends on your approach. If you were to contact someone you researched on, say, LinkedIn, and explained in a brief, polite, and professional email your reason for reaching out (such as researching a potential new field), mention something about their experience that interests you, and express your eagerness to learn something from them, I do not think he or she would find it weird at all. Even better if you can lead with something you have in common with the person (graduated from the same school, work at a similar company, or just a passion for the same industry.) You might be surprised how many people are willing to connect with you if you just take the initiative; they too are looking to build their network, and people are often flattered when someone less experienced looks to them as a source of knowledge.

    Bottom line is you have to be willing to go out on a limb, and know that if someone does not get back to you, or simply does not have the time to meet, it is not a comment on you. More risk, more reward!

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