Back in the early days of my career, I made a point to go on frequent informational interviews. These meetings, which were usually conducted in person, gave me a chance to sit down with people who were successful in their field and to learn from their experience. I never overtly asked people for a job or anything more than a little of their time. My goal was to learn, and possibly to make an acquaintance that could prove fruitful in later years. I’ve always advised young career-seekers to get as many informational interviews as they can. At the very least, they’re good practice for the firing line of a real job interview.
The strategy paid off for me when I was assigned to write a profile of Paul McPherson, then the president of McGraw-Hill Publishing, for an alumni magazine. At the end of our interview, I asked McPherson if he would mind if I contacted him from time to time for advice on careers in publishing. He generously consented, and two years later put me onto a lead that got me my first real journalism job.
Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Every couple of months, I get an inquiry from someone starting or switching a career who‘s looking for advice. I almost always agree to these meetings, but I often find them unsatisfactory. Over the past 20 years, the informational interview has been replaced by “networking.” The meeting is now all about the job-seeker’s needs, with very little benefit to the advice-giver. This is a shame, because I’m less likely to remember an encounter that has no value to me.
I think today’s “networkers” should steal a few tips from informational interviews. Here’s my advice:
Do your research. The fact that it’s so easy to find background information on almost anyone today makes it all the more astounding that so many people don’t. Within 10 minutes, anyone can learn that I was born in Hong Kong, graduated from Boston University, have written four books, am a passionate Boston Red Sox fan and enjoy scuba diving. These are all entry points to the conversation, yet rarely do my meeting companions appear to know anything more than the basics about me. This shows a lack of resourcefulness on their part, and resourcefulness is a key skill for survival in these tumultuous times.
Have an agenda. I hate chit-chat, and I suspect the same is true for a lot of busy people. Planning the meeting gives you a better chance to achieve your objective and me the opportunity to prepare. If you want contacts who’ll help you find a job, say so and I’ll bring some. If you want to learn from my experience, then have questions along those lines. Don’t leave the discussion open-ended, because then I’ll start asking you a lot of questions and you’ll get a lot less out of the session.
Ask questions. People like to talk about themselves, so give them that opportunity. This is why the interview format works so well. If the meeting is all about the person seeking advice, it’s a lot less interesting to the person giving it. That means they’ll be less likely to remember you.
You’ve asked for a meeting in order to learn, so have some questions ready. Ask about their secrets of success, the turning points in their career, mistakes they’ve made, memorable people they’ve met. Believe me, the more you get them talking about themselves, the more highly they’ll regard you.
Give value, too. I don’t mean this to sound self-serving, because I believe people who have been successful should lend a helping hand to those just starting. However, the “networking” encounter is going to be a lot more fulfilling if both parties see some return. This is where blogging is a fabulous tool. Instead of asking to “network,” offer to write up the interview and post it on your blog, or just point a Flip cam at the person’s face and post the video clip along with a link to their website. This gives both parties something to show for the encounter.
If you can’t think of a way to give value, ask the one question that no one has ever asked me in a networking meeting: “What can I do to help you?” This will surprise and flatter the person you’re meeting. Even if they can’t think of anything, they’ll remember you.
Follow up. Perhaps one in every three people who ask to meet for the purpose of “networking” ever bothers to send so much as an e-mail thank-you note. This baffles me, since I learned at an early age that thank-yous were a common courtesy when requesting a favor of another person. Your best chance to be remembered by the person you’ve just met is in the days immediately following the encounter. A thank-you note reinforces the impression you’ve made. It’s even better if you can tell the person how you’re putting their advice to work. Add 10 bonus points if you write the note by hand and send it in the US Mail.