by Deanna Parkton
If you are thinking about advancing your career or are currently job searching, it is likely that you have been thinking about networking. Networking via industry networking events are a great way to connect with professionals in your field whether or not you are job searching. When job searching, you can use these events as ways to find out about openings or meet people who are working at the companies you are interested in.
While group events can often provide multiple opportunities with different people, there is something to be said about adding 1:1 networking opportunities to the mix. The opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with one person rather than multiple quick conversations can ultimately have more of an impact. 1:1 networking often takes the form of an informational interview. This formal term can maybe carry some anxiety but it is essentially an opportunity to ask a professional in your field questions to gain information. This can easily be as simple as asking someone “Would you want to meet up for a cup of coffee? I’d love to pick your brain!”
Professional coffee dates took a hit during the pandemic, when many people were isolating and limiting possible Covid exposures. As with everything, we quickly adapted. Virtual coffee dates hit the scene hard when it was not feasible to connect in-person. As life has returned to a sense of normalcy, virtual coffee dates have continued due to the ease of connecting from the comfort of one’s own home or office. There is certainly no replacement for the connection that an in-person hangout session can bring, but a virtual one is a nice alternative. With most people navigating busy schedules, having the option to avoid travel time as part of a coffee meet-up can make it a lot easier to connect with a friend or colleague.
Meeting virtually may also increase the chances of a cold contact being open to connecting. While a “friend of a friend” is a great connection builder, tools like LinkedIn can help you target professionals in your field or at companies of interest to introduce yourself and ask them for some time to chat.
In fact, technology has made connecting with a cold contact easier. Sites like Lunch Club will actually pair you with a professional in your industry based on a short questionnaire. To learn about other sites similar to Lunch Club, check out this site for more recommendations.
You may be thinking, “Okay, this is helpful but how do I ask someone for time to chat? What should I say? Do I lead the conversation or do they?” You are not alone if this brings up some anxiety. Talking to a stranger especially in a professional context can be intimidating, especially when you are job searching.
Making the Ask
Asking someone for time to chat over “virtual coffee” can take many different forms. However you ask, be sure to keep the following things in mind:
1. Set context
Be clear in why you are reaching out to them. Why them and what are you looking to get out of the conversation?
“I came across your profile and noticed that you work at (company). (Company) has been on my radar because of the (something specific that the company is doing that might garner attention). As someone who is also in the (industry) field, I would love to pick your brain about your work. I am looking to learn as much as I can from others in the field and am on a bit of an exploratory journey as I think about my next career move.”
2. Show flexibility
Provide options and also set a time boundary so that they know what to expect from your conversation.
“Would you be open to a quick chat over phone, Zoom or in-person for coffee? I am open to whichever works best for you, but I do know in-person can be difficult with travel time and a busy schedule. I would appreciate any time you can provide, even a short 15 minute conversation if your schedule allows.”
3. Express gratitude and humility
Being clear that you are not expecting others to do the work for you in your career journey can show a healthy dose of humility that is appreciated. Some professionals are often approached by hungry job seekers with a sense of entitlement which can be off-putting. Humility goes a long way in opening doors.
“Thank you for considering this request. I am sure that you are busy and I greatly appreciate you taking the time to think about connecting with me.”
For other ideas and strategies, check out the links below.
Leading the Conversation
Think the 3 P’s: Professional, polite and positive. Connecting with someone you do not know well can often feel a little awkward, and if you are not used to connecting professionally over Zoom, it can add a feeling of uncertainty. Since you had made the ask for the connection, it is important that you lead the conversation. While you may not feel confident, show confidence!
Start off by thanking them for their time. Explain where you are at in your career journey and elaborate on why you asked them to connect. If you are job searching, it is important to keep the conversation away from the strife and struggles of job searching. While we all can relate to the frustration of the job search, avoid negativity and complaining. If you start the conversation too focused on “do you know of any job openings?” or “how can I find a job?”, the other person may feel uncomfortable since they might not be able to directly help with your job search. The goal is not to find help with your job search per say, but to expand your network, learn from others in the field and gain insights about companies that might be worth focusing your search on. Express this and this will set the tone for a positive and focused conversation.
Prepare (Good) Questions
Make sure that you have at least 10 questions prepared. While you may not get to every question, it is important that you feel and look prepared.
That being said, make sure that you do not come off like an investigative reporter. While you do not want to fully control the conversation, you do want to control the flow of the conversation. Asking thought-provoking questions that entice the other person to share will make the conversation more valuable. While a quick Google search of “informational interview questions” will give you a slew of questions to compile, think about topics you would like to learn more about related to your field. The more personal your questions are to you, the more valuable the insight will be. Maybe you are really interested in a particular technology in the industry, you could ask about that. Or maybe you are really interested in leadership styles and how people work together – you could ask them about their philosophy of leadership (“what makes a good leader?”) or “how do you collaborate with your colleagues and what advice do you have related to collaborating with others?” Unique questions will help you stand out and help deepen the conversation professionally.
The opportunities that technology allows us is one that we should certainly be taking advantage of. The possibilities in networking (like technology) are endless!
For more ideas about networking virtually, check out our blog Working the Room Online: Tools to Expand Your Network Virtually.
For more ideas on how you can strategize your networking, consider working with a career coach. A coach can help you identify strategies to face challenges head on. Check out our executive coaching services and sign up for a free consultation here.
Deanna Parkton is a writer, career coach and educator with a passion for professional development and work wellness and happiness. With a focus on self-reflection, she works with individuals in their quest to reach their career goals as well as satisfaction in work-life balance. You can find more of her writing at workinglivingwell.comand she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.