Setting up the Interview
Once you’ve gotten someone to agree to meet with you, generally the rest is fairly straightforward. You’ll need to set up the details. How to setup up a time and place to meet is important.
Rule 1: Accept their offer to meet if they propose when and where.
Firstly, if they offer a time and place, accept the meeting unless you really must adjust it. Don’t give them any opportunity to stall or find a later time. If you do have control over the when and where, I do have a few specific rules to follow. Firstly, always offer to “come to them.” Do not make them drive to you, no matter how short of a distance you think it is.
Rule 2: Try to make it at their office.
You don’t have to make them go anywhere. They probably already feel more comfortable on their home turf. More opportunities tend to arise at office informationals than elsewhere. If they like you, you’ll be invited to talk with other people while you are there (“Hey while you’re here, let me introduce you to such and such”). At the very least, they’ll give you a tour of the office, allowing you more opportunities to ask about pictures hanging on the wall, how many people are there or what it is like to work day-in, day-out out in the space. Their office is a great place to meet – suggest it to them.
Rule 3: Always try for coffee.
If the office is not an option or they are a “want to get out of the office” type, go for coffee. Usually coffee is my first choice. It puts you in the middle of the day, when the other person isn’t bogged down. They are less likely to cancel a coffee than a lunch. Most importantly, it doesn’t put food in between your conversation. Forcing your interviewee to answer your questions for 15 minutes before even taking their first bite makes for a lopsided conversation. You’ll have eaten all your food and their plate will still be full (or vice versa). Conversation does not flow well over lunch, especially with a time limit and a mouth full of food. You are also often forced to talk yourself for longer stretches of time to allow them to eat. All this is to say, you will still be forced to have lunch interviews, but if you can avoid them, do so.
Rule 4: Match your dress code.
One other important detail is dress code. Be sure to ask what the other person wears on a daily basis. Make it a very casual question, often in a standalone email the day before, maybe while confirming tomorrow’s meeting. I have been caught both underdressing (not wearing a full suit and tie) and overdressing (wearing a suit and tie to a company that wears jeans). Not dressing right makes people uncomfortable. An example email could go like this:
I’m looking forward to meeting tomorrow. Quick question – What is your office dress code? I’d like to dress appropriately. Thanks again and see you tomorrow at 9:00.”
Once you’ve set up the meeting and all the details are finalized, you need to prepare. Going in cold or halfhearted is a sure-fire way to have a terrible interview. Follow these remaining rules and it will go great.
Rule 5: Get your paradigm right.
I highly recommend this specific paradigm or worldview, especially for informational interviews. This paradigm isn’t mine, but from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” For so many reasons you need to read this entire book, but specifically for informationals, hang on to the Chapter “Six Ways to Make People Like You.” You are not necessarily trying to get your interviewee to like you, but indeed these methods can help your conversation go smoother. These six methods are:
- Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.
- Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.
I am not going to elaborate on the methods above, but please take them to heart, read them before each interview and follow them!
Rule 6: Do your research ahead of time.
You must research this person as well as you can before meeting them in person. Don’t start your conversation off wrong and ruin goodwill by not knowing what they do, where they work, or what kind of company they work for. You are asking for awkward if you don’t. Read up on their company’s website. Google News their name and company. Read their whole LinkedIn page. Research their past companies, schools, non-profits, and interests. What do your contacts know about this person, if you were introduced? Can you figure out their interests outside of work? Turn all of the above into five to ten talking points. Memorize or write down these points at the top of your meeting notebook. Being prepared helps the flow of the conversation. Come armed and ready to talk.
Rule 7: Come to the meeting ready to lead it.
You may need to do most of the talking at the beginning of the meeting. Often the interviewee has agreed to meet with you, but doesn’t really know why. I’d say that a third of interviews are not “led” by the interviewee, meaning you will have to lead it yourself. This means you will need a solid five minute block of things to talk about while the other person is getting familiar with you.
It also means having lots of questions to ask, especially when they give one-word answers. You never really know what will make the other person tick, so come prepared to find out. Finally, be prepared for them to ask you questions, and to have good answers for them. Think about questions they’ll ask you like:
- Why are we here?
- What are you doing now?
- Tell me a little about yourself…
- What can I do for you?
Rule 8: Be Courteous.
There are some final common courtesies and miscellaneous tips for informationals. Find out the other person’s dress code and stick to it as best you can. Be timely to the meeting (arrive early if possible). If you are running late due to traffic, overslept, or stuck in a meeting, let them know as soon as possible. Often they will still be at their office and they will not have to leave to meet you. Ask the other person how much time you have. Always offer to pay for coffee, lunch, or drinks. Nine times out of ten they will pay for it (if you are younger than them), but always offer to pay. If you can, find a place that gives you space to spread out a bit. Bring an exhibit of something you are currently working on. This can be a recent class project, a picture from a fundraiser, or something you are working on at work. Finally, use a pad of paper and pen/pencil to take notes, not a smartphone. You want your interviewee to know you are writing down interesting things they said, not checking your emails.