Informational Interviews: Part 2

Inviting to the Informational Interview
I get as nervous as anyone when asking someone for a meeting, even though there is no reason we should be nervous. Let me share three invitation rules with you. I said the informational interview is just a conversation or a meeting between two peers or colleagues. The phrase informational interview sets a weird tone, and people might think this is a job seeker and they just want to give me their resume. The second rule to remember is that you were asking for this meeting as a peer or a colleague. The other person might have power and influence to help you get what you want, a job or a contract or introduction or whatever. They might have a job title that intimidates you. They might work at a more prestigious company than you do, but all you’re asking for is time on their calendar. As a peer or colleague you’re just as important as they are. The third rule is to be concise in your invitation. A mistake I’ve seen is asking for a meeting with too much information in the invitation. Unnecessary information becomes noise that distracts from your request. The goal of your invitation is to get a meeting, not to educate them about you or your projects. Give them context, but then get to the point and make a clear call to action. If you tend to get nervous, script your part of the conversation word for word. You don’t need to read or memorize your script, but having a script can help you stay on track. Let me share five elements of an invitation, and then I’ll give you an example :
– First, you want a strong subject.
– Second, put the relationship into context, which is, how I know you or how I heard about you.
– Third, explain what you want, which is a meeting.
– Fourth, the all important call to action.
– Fifth, strong personal branding, usually in your email signature.

I’ll frame the example as if you were inviting someone through email, but the principle can easily apply to LinkedIn, as well as over the phone. The goal in email is to hit each of the five points while being concise. A strong subject I like is, “Meeting next week?” If I saw this subject, I would not delete the email assuming it was spam. I might think, Oh, did I have a meeting with this person next week? I’m not trying to trick the person I’m inviting, of course, but I do want them to read the email. This subject is very short, and because it has a question, it feels actionable. Next, I put the relationship into context, explaining how I know of or heard about them. This short line would do the trick. “Hi, Marina, we met at the product meetup last night where Diane was speaking.” Frankly, that’s enough. I could write more, but I believe it’s important to be concise. I don’t need to explain why I was at the meetup, or how I know the speaker, write just enough to put the relationship into context. Then I share why I’m reaching out to them. This is where we want to explain a lot, but we don’t need to. I might write something like, “I want to continue our conversation from last night.” Or, “I have specific questions about current industry trends and would like your insight.” This tells the other person you don’t want to meet just to meet, but you have a specific purpose. Next is the call to action. The call to action, or CTA in marketing talk, should be direct, with only one request. You could say something like, “Can we schedule a meeting?” But a correct response to that is simply yes. Then you would have to ask when and wait for a response. A better call to action might be. “Can we meet on Monday the third at 2 p.m.?” Your call to action should be short and simple. Finally, have strong and concise branding. I like to do this in my email signature with a one line description of what I do. The goal of this invitation is to get a meeting scheduled, but what if they say no to your invitation? We’ll talk about that next.

Handling Declined Invitations
If you extend enough invitations, someone is bound to decline. That’s okay. I used to take it personally and get offended. I wondered if they thought they were too good to meet with me. I wondered if I wasn’t good enough to meet with them. This is the wrong mentality. I had to learn to give them the benefit of the doubt and move on. I’ve learned that people decline invitations simply because of timing or logistics. Maybe today, this week, or this month doesn’t work for them. You can ask if there is a better time to meet or wait a couple of months and ask again. Another thing you can do is simply ask for referrals, which could help you get introductions. You could say, “I understand it might be a bad time for us to get together. Is there someone else in your company, or our industry, I should talk with?” There’s nothing wrong with asking for referrals. Just because they can’t meet with you doesn’t mean they don’t want to be helpful. It might be hard, but strive to maintain a positive attitude, don’t hold grudges or be upset with them. Networking is a long term strategy, a declined invitation might mean no for now, but it doesn’t necessarily mean no forever.

Research before the Meeting
Before your informational interview, you may have an opportunity to do research. I’m not talking about thesis level research, taking hours and hours to learn about every detail you can find. Granted, if the stakes are high, do more research. But imagine scheduling a couple informational interviews this week and thinking you have to do hours of research for each one. This just becomes too much. Perhaps it is more important to have smart questions prepared than to know everything about the person you are meeting with and their company. Just make sure those questions aren’t too basic, distracting from the objectives of our meeting. I would suggest spending at least 10 or 15 minutes on the person’s LinkedIn profile and on the company website. From those two sources, you might come up with smart questions to meet your objectives. If the stakes are high and you have more time, you might use some of the business models that help understand a business or industry. Doing analysis with any of these models would be good preparation for a rich conversation. One model is called Porter’s Five Forces, which is a model that helps you understand the competitive environment. The five forces are either powers or threats and are competitive threats, supplier power, buyer power, threat of substitution, and threat of new entry. Understanding who the main players are and who has the power can help you understand where opportunities are. Speaking of opportunities, the next model I would work on is called a SWOT analysis. In a SWOT analysis, you list a company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. This model could help you have smarter conversations in your meeting. Asking good questions will help you learn more about the company and industry, which is one of the four purposes of informational interviews.

Preparing Questions
Before you meet with your contact, you should have a list of questions you’ve thought through. Each question can have a different purpose. Of course, you ask questions to get information. You should learn something about the other person, the company, or the industry based on the conversation. You can use questions to show interest, passion, or expertise. I’ve asked questions where the response was, “Wow, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure I’ve thought about that.” This kind of response reinforces me as a peer or colleague. Try to avoid canned questions you found on basic articles about informational interviews. The canned questions I’ve seen for informational interviews seem to be time fillers and not designed to help you meet your objectives. When you ask a question, plan to have a conversation based on their response, don’t rush through your questions. I’d rather you spend the entire meeting talking about one question than rush through your list. Someone suggested it’s OK to ask the other person about your skills. I would avoid these questions, especially in the first meeting. Otherwise, it makes the meeting about you, instead of focusing on any of the four objectives we’ve talked about. You are not there to sell yourself. Neither are you there to argue or debate. Even if they’re wrong, you might have to bite your tongue a little. You don’t want to walk out of the meeting having proved you are right. But having them think, “Wow, that person is a jerk.” Worse, if you show them you won’t listen, why would they feel confident recommending you to their network? Let’s go over some example questions in the next video.