Informational interviews, or coffee chats, are actually a double-edged sword, if you think about it.
Leave a strong positive impression on the other person and they’re likely to help you down the line. But, at the same time, making some seemingly small mistakes might actually kill your chances at landing that role.
So, I’m going to share 5 common mistakes you want to avoid before, during, and after conducting informational interviews.
By not mentioning the specific amount of time you want to take up and the topic of the conversation beforehand, you come off as unprepared at best, and disorganized at worst.
You don’t want to ask for 15 minutes then keep them for 40, or schedule an entire hour but run out of things to say after 10 minutes.
A good rule of thumb is to just ask for, and stick to, 30 minutes and schedule more sessions if the conversation goes well.
Topic-wise you don’t want to ask them to talk about something too generic. You want to list specific areas you’d like to touch on in that initial request email for the informational interview.
Try something like this:
Not only does this impress the other party with the background research that you’ve clearly done beforehand, but it prompts them to prepare answers that are meaningful to you.
Case and point: this is a message from a viewer of mine:
Her question isn’t bad: she asked me how to go from sales to product marketing, but an even better way to phrase this question is to ask what skills are needed to successfully go from sales to marketing.
That subtle change in wording would prompt me to answer with specific skillsets rather than more broad answers like “Oh I was in the right place at the right time, I worked on the right projects, etc.”
Let’s be honest, many professionals who say yes to informational interviews enjoy talking about their experiences, they enjoy talking about themselves.
So it’s easy for them to go off on a tangent that’s not necessarily relevant for you and risks wasting precious time for both of you.
To bring them back onto the topics you want to learn more about, without making it awkward, you can say something like:
Notice I first acknowledged the story they were telling by summarizing it, then mentioned how I don’t want to waste their time, before smoothly transitioning to what I really want to hear.
A big mistake here is not bringing something other than your smartphone for note-taking purposes.
While informational interviews are more casual by nature and can take place face-to-face or over the phone, taking notes shows your counterpart you’re taking what they say seriously and this buys you goodwill.
Bringing a notepad also has the added benefit of having your pre-prepared coffee chat questions on there so you can refer to them just in case you get too nervous and forget some of the questions you were going to ask
There are two small hacks I can share here:
And also, saying something like “sorry I just want to make sure I capture this point you’re making” some time into the conversation, it comes off as more spontaneous and shows that you’re really eager to learn.
This is by far the most common mistake, and the mistake with the biggest consequences.
I say the most common mistake because like going to the gym, it’s hard to follow up with your connections regularly. I get it, you’re busy studying, working, looking for the next opportunity.
It’s also the mistake with the biggest consequence because had you followed up with that right professional consistently, you could well be top-of-mind when the right opportunity does open up.
To help you with this, I made an extremely simple networking spreadsheet on Google Sheets so you can keep track of your professional network.
Essentially the “Snapshot tab” is where you can keep track of all your connections. You can see their name, role, company, location, the last contact date, and some high level comments to remind you what your last chat was about.
Then for each connection you can make a separate tab where you write down all your notes from each interaction, be it over email or phone call.
Now, you can input everyone you talk to in this trix, but instead of trying to keep track of hundreds of these professionals, I recommend you prioritize and select 3, just 3 people you want to continue having that relationship with.
Then mark your calendar and drop them a note once a month, once a quarter, or once every 6 months because like building any habit, consistency is key.
If they’re used to receiving communication from you regularly even though it’s once every half year, it’s not going to be too jarring or aggressive if you ask for their help once in a while.
If you’re worried about what to write in those emails, keep them updated on your job search or career journey, let them know whether you followed their advice from your last conversation.
Share information that they might be interested in, add value. Another viewer of mine literally made an entire presentation where she analyzed my videos and gave me helpful tips and advice.
The key here is to remember informational interviews are designed for developing relationships, rather than landing jobs.
People tend to remember the beginning of conversations, hence the reason why first impressions are so important, and the end, since they’ll be thinking about it for a brief period of time following your chat.
So, what you want to do, when you’re thanking them for their time right at the end of the coffee chat, is to point out 1 or 2 specific things from the conversation that they had talked about, preferably referencing the notes you took.
This conveys to them that you were actively listening this entire time instead of thinking of the next impressive question to ask or thinking about how to get an internal referral. In short, this shows you were genuinely engaged throughout the conversation.
What are some of the best questions to ask in coffee chats? Watch my Informational Interviews: Best Questions to Ask video!