People refer to unofficial meetings with prospective employers in all sorts of ways: Mock interviews, informational interviews, or, as my business school classmates and I referred to them, “coffee chats” (the coffee part was taken very literally, and I’m still attempting to reduce my caffeine tolerance now, three years after graduating).
These meetings can be incredibly fruitful. They’ve helped me become a better businessperson and startup advisor. I still set up them up to connect with industry experts about current tech trends and, on the flipside, to share my experiences with aspiring venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years to get the most out of informational interviews, no matter what you call them:
As the “interviewee,” it is important to set yourself up for success by thinking through and establishing your general goal(s) of the meeting before setting a date. Are you looking to learn more about a particular industry? To gain a better understanding of a role or company you’re interested in? To be top of mind when the person you’re meeting with has a future need for someone with your experience? Setting your purpose will help guide your research and your chat.
Use everyone’s time well by doing some basic research prior to the interview. Review the person’s LinkedIn profile and, if applicable, their bio from their company website, along with any other relevant background you can surface through a Google search. Understanding the previous and current experience of the person you’re meeting with will help you tap into their expertise and drum up a few talking points. If you find that you and your interviewer share a common interest, hobby, or affiliation, weaving a mention of that into the conversation can help break the ice and form a memorable connection. If you are looking to learn more about a specific role or company, it’s also essential that you’ve read the latest news about the company itself. When it’s clear someone has done their homework to find out whatever they can before showing up to an informational interview, I take the person more seriously.
Once you’re up to speed on the person’s background, draft a list of specific questions that you can have on hand to drive the conversation. Construct questions that will help you get the most out of the interaction and walk away with more than generic insights. If you want to learn about how past experience plays into a particular role, for example, you could ask a question along the lines of: “I see that you have had substantial experience in the consumer products industry as a marketer; how have you used that experience in your current role as a manager at [insert name of e-commerce company]?” Thoughtful questions help set you up for an informative conversation without accidentally making someone feel like you’re grilling him or her.
Although your goal may be to gain information about a role or to impress a potential hiring manager, remember to also think about how you can help the person who’s helping you. As you prep, ask yourself what you may bring to the table that would benefit the person. If you are meeting with a business development professional at a consumer-facing tech company, how about checking out their product or service and drafting some ideas on what markets or strategic partnerships the startup might consider pursuing in the future? Show up with a list of ideas, insights, and connections of interest in case there’s an opportunity to bring them up.
I can’t emphasize the power of a first impression enough. This may sound like common sense, but upon setting up your meeting, make sure that you and the other party have a clear understanding of the logistics. When the meeting is first set, I like to send a Google Calendar invite that lists the meeting time, location, and any other relevant notes or background links. Are you meeting in person, over the phone, or through video? Do you have each other’s Skype names? If you are arranging a call, is there a conference line with a dial in, or are you expected to call the person directly? If you are meeting live, what is the exact address? Is there anything confusing about where to enter the meeting spot or wait for one another? To make sure all parties are on the same page, I’ve gotten in the habit of emailing the person the night before or the morning of our meeting to confirm the plans.
Once you get through any greetings and small talk, deliver a concise introduction to remind the person why you are thankful for their time and what you hope to speak about over the next 20-25 minutes. Doing so will help refresh everyone’s memories and orient the conversation around your goals. When you’re one-on-one with someone, it can be easy to forget that the person may have a very busy schedule or fields many informational interview requests. Always do the person the favor of reminding him or her of your background and the context through which you were connected. That’ll help avoid a scenario where the whole time, the person is distracted thinking to themselves, ‘So how do I know this person again?’
If things have gone according to plan, you have learned a lot from your informational interview and now have a better sense of the job, company, industry, or person you’d sought out to learn more about. The experience doesn’t end there. You’ve got to be on your follow-up game. Sending a thoughtful, timely follow-up email (and, in some cases, a handwritten note) not only shows that you are grateful for the person’s time; it also gives you an opportunity to cultivate a meaningful business relationship that can last well beyond a single coffee chat.
Images courtesy of WOCinTech Chat via Flickr