Informational interviews or coffee chats are conversations that will change your life.
Think I’m exaggerating? With 20 years of coffee chatting* experience under my belt, I kid you not. It’s the most important tool that has helped me find job leads**, meet collaborators, connect with clients, make friends, and more generally, learn about what I want (and don’t want) as I plan upcoming career moves.
*Fun Fact: No coffee was ever consumed on my end because I can’t handle the caffeine in coffee! So feel free to choose another beverage of your choice at your next informational interview. Or skip the drink altogether with a virtual chat.
**Important Note: I say “job leads” because informational interviews are NOT about asking for a job. You might indirectly hear about a job lead during your chat, but your main goal is to learn (about the other person’s career journey, role, company, industry, etc. to inform your decisions) and to build rapport (so you’ll ideally spark a long-term relationship of mutual support).
So is it an informational interview or a coffee chat?
In this post, I’ll use the phrase “informational interview” and “coffee chat” interchangeably. “Informational interview” might sound too official and scary, so ☕”coffee chat”☕ is gaining popularity for its approachability. However, if you’re reaching out to someone in a higher position or in a more formal industry, using “informational interview” could be a more appropriate way to frame it. At the end of the day, they both follow the same flow.
The general flow of an informational interview or coffee chat
- You are interested in a certain topic and have some questions.
- You find someone who has experience with that topic.
- You ask if they’d be willing to meet for a short conversation.
- You two meet, share introductions, and chat about that topic of interest.
- You get your questions answered. (And hopefully you two enjoyed getting to know each other.)
- You thank the other person.
- You two are now connected and can potentially stay in touch.
Sounds simple enough right? I bet you have questions though. Like, how do you approach someone for a coffee chat? And why would they agree to talk to you? Wouldn’t they just ignore a random stranger like you?
Great questions! And the truth is yes, not everyone will agree to an informational interview. Yes, you’ll probably be ignored a few times along the way. But there are steps you can take to increase your success rate.
Apply these strategies to increase your chances of getting an informational interview or coffee chat.
1) Identify your targets.
If you’ve done some personal reflection (this tool can help), you should have an idea of where you’re feeling stuck or unsure. Then it’s a matter of figuring out who might have answers. For example, if you wonder whether you need a particular certification for a certain type of role, look for someone in that role and ask them if you need that certification to start out. If you dream of working for Company Wishlist, find people working at Company Wishlist to ask how they landed there. LinkedIn is a great place to search for folks with specific job titles and at specific companies. You can also explore company team pages, directories of professional associations, and members of professional online communities.
2) Get warm introductions.
The best way to make a new connection is to go through an existing one. When you’ve identified an area that you’d like to learn more about, ask your friends and family if they could introduce you to anyone who would have insights. If your Aunt Susan sends an intro email, that other person would be so much more likely to free up time for Aunt Susan’s darling niece/nephew!
3) Do your research.
Before connecting with anyone, research their history. Browse their LinkedIn profile and see what roles they’ve had. Does their career journey mirror your aspirations? What volunteer work are they involved in? Do you share any common interests or education? Look at their portfolio or company website and see what they’re up to. Start noting ways you relate with them and why you think they may have valuable information to support you with where you are now.
4) Don’t sound like a robot or a scam.
We all get phishing emails and spam calls, so our brain is wired to go to ⚠️Warning Mode⚠️ when we get a message from someone we don’t know. Try your best to appear human and real. One way is to make sure your LinkedIn is complete and up-to-date with a friendly, professional photo. Scam messages often sound vague and generic, contain lots of typos, and come from weird email addresses. So do the opposite! Make sure you send a clear, tailored message, with excellent spelling and grammar, and sent from a professional email address or from your LinkedIn account.
5) Tailor your message to show you’ve done your research.
Remember the research you did? Now is the time to sprinkle that in with your request for an informational interview. For example, “I’m currently (a nugget about you) and I’m exploring a career in (their field). I see you’ve (something you researched) and I’d love to learn more about (what you want to know).”
The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this. This is especially true if you’re sending a connection request on LinkedIn. Always use your desktop to access the “Add Note” feature where you can attach a 300 character limit note to your connection request. (I often ignore connection requests that don’t have a note.) Depending on your LinkedIn plan, you might also have a few InMail messages available each month to send longer messages to those outside your network.
6) Make your request clear and realistic.
Coffee chats are usually short, like 20-30 minutes. They can be longer, but ask for a shorter time to start. (When the chat is happening and it’s going well, you can ask if the other person would like to speak longer then.) When reaching out, phrase your request as a Yes or No question, with a time frame, to prompt a direct response. If they say no, then you can both move on! Here’s an example: “Would you be willing to meet over a 20 minute Zoom call in the next two weeks?”
7) Make it easy for them to say yes.
Always remember that you are asking for a favor. The other person really owes you nothing. Your job is to reduce the barriers for them to say yes to a chat. For example, have a more flexible schedule to accommodate their work hours and family responsibilities. If meeting in person, offer to meet near their location so they don’t have to commute. You can add a note like, “I’d be happy to meet at a time and location that is convenient for you.”
That being said, if you have restrictions, include them to reduce the back and forth communication required to book a time. For example, “My schedule is usually flexible on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, so please let me know if there’s a time on those days that work for you for a quick chat!”
8) Be friendly and professional.
This ties in with not sounding like a robot and making it easy for the other person to say yes. When you are friendly and professional, people will want to help you. If you sound aggressive or entitled, that is the fastest route to the delete pile.
Show appreciation. Use a soft tone. (Grammarly can check your tone and provide suggestions.) Demonstrate that you are asking specifically for their help and you’re not copy/pasting a one-size-fits-all message. Before sending off your note, read it as if you had received it from a stranger. Would you respond to it? Would you wish you had been approached differently?
Hopefully with these tips, you’ll get replies very soon. When you do, keep up your professionalism by responding in a timely manner. These interactions create the first impression for the other person, so don’t waste this great opportunity to show that you’re motivated to speak with them and respect their time. They’ll get excited to meet such a put together person like you!
Still shy about reaching out?
Thanks for reading all the way to the bottom of this post! Did you notice that I never mentioned the word “networking” until this sentence? I did that on purpose because I realize “networking” freaks a lot of people out. I hope the strategies above will help alleviate some of the stress around reaching out to new people. It can be done in a very friendly and authentic way. And people are often happy to help if the ask is reasonable.
If you are still feeling hesitant, I can coach you through it step-by-step. I will partner with you to create a networking roadmap, complete with the who, what, and how of building meaningful professional relationships. We’ll walk through a LinkedIn outreach together, and we’ll even hone your friendly, professional communication style in a practice informational interview. Contact me for more info!
Crystal Lee, MPH, CPCC is a holistic career coach who helps relocating job seekers and career changers find clarity, confidence, and community. Let her know if you have a career question! If you find her content helpful, please consider donating to her tip jar.