What should I talk about during my first informational interview?
For the last months, I’ve written to you about networking and the many ways it can help you speed up your job search in international development. I hope by now you’ve seen that networking should be something that you do naturally, that it is just a way of getting to know people with common interests, and that these people with common interests are usually more than happy to help you.
Oh, and if you don’t remember my last posts, you can find them here:
If you’ve started to see things this way, and have sent out some emails asking for meetings or informational interviews, you will have probably received some positive responses by now. (If you haven’t, please send me a copy of a sample email you have sent and I will try to give you some feedback. And for examples of how to write simple networking emails that get responses, please see my previous post here.)
So first of all, if you have received these responses, congratulations! You are now well on your way to developing a solid professional network. Your next task is to get great information on your field of choice, and develop a great relationship with the people you talk to.
And how do you do this? Meetings, unlike emails, can’t be planned from beginning to end. Developing the skills to engage people that you don’t know in interesting professional conversations takes a lot of practice. However, there are a few things that you can plan for that will help you make the most out of these meetings.
- Find out what you can about the person you’re meeting and their professional expertise. You probably have a good sense of who you’re meeting if you’ve followed my advice and chosen the people you’ve contacted carefully based on their careers. However, once they have agreed to meet with you, it is important to do a bit more homework, trying to understand more clearly the kinds of projects they work on or research they do, and their points of view on their field of expertise in general. The idea isn’t to then impress them with your research (although Jim Kim seems to have impressed Barack Obama this way, leading to his job as President of the World Bank), but it is to make sure that you can ask the right questions during your meeting. If you understand this person’s professional interests well, you’re more likely to ask specific and relevant questions and not questions that you could have answered through a good online search.
- Make sure you are up-to-date on important news and trends in your specific field of interest. In some cases, people you talk to will refer to this news or issues assuming you know what they are talking about. I don’t recommend pretending you know what someone is talking about – I think it becomes really obvious when someone does this – and I do strongly encourage you to ask questions if the person you are talking to talks about issues you aren’t familiar with. However, if you read up on the most important issues in your field, you’ll show professional interest and you’ll be able to have a more fluid and interesting conversation.
Develop a concise and clear statement of who you are and why you wanted to talk to this person. You probably already developed this statement when you wrote your email asking for the meeting, so you just need to transform what you’ve already said into something that is comfortable to say during a live conversation. This statement should say something about your professional interests, why this person is particularly interesting, and what you’d like to get from the meeting. For example:
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. As I mentioned in my email, I’ve just recently finished my M.A. in International Development from LSE. Before my degree, I did some work on micro finance in my own country, and now I’m looking for similar work internationally. I know that you do some great work on micro finance and wanted to get your views on who does the best work in this area internationally and the kinds of opportunities I might find at my level.”
“It’s great to finally meet you. I’ve been following your blog for the last few years and I think the work you’re doing on inequality is fascinating. I’m currently working in a small NGO in the Philippines. I’ve been implementing community development projects but have been considering moving into positions where I can do more work on inequality.”
- 4. Prepare for the hardest part of the conversation: the transition between your introduction and the conversation itself. In my opinion, this can be the hardest part of the conversation, and it can get a bit awkward. This is a point where you’ve said who you are, and you need to find a way to get a conversation going. With some people (hopefully most), you will find that your preparation was unnecessary, as the person you are meeting will ask you a bit more about you, will volunteer information about themselves, and you’ll find yourself in the middle of an interesting conversation with no real effort. However, some people are more shy than others, so it is good to prepare 2-3 specific questions that can get the conversation going. You can ask the person:
- About their experience entering the field, what they found difficult, and how they overcame obstacles
- About the more interesting work they’re doing or know about, about interesting emerging trends or lines of work in the field
Of course if you have other things in common (such as having gone to the same university, or having worked in the same organization), talking about those common experiences can be a better and more natural transition.
And that’s it! That’s all you need to plan for. I would say that about ⅔ of your meetings should go well with just this bit of preparation. (Not all meetings go well for anyone!)
Do remember to finish out the meeting asking the person if there are other people they’d recommend you get advice from. Try to make sure you don’t take more of the person’s time than you’ve asked for, and do make sure you send a quick thank you meeting a day or two after your talk. (For more advice, remember to look at my Guide on How to Get a Job in International Development.)
Like always, I’d love to hear from you. Do let me know about your experience with informational interviews and networking meetings. I’d love to hear how I can help!