Emma: Here is my ideal informational interview: I ask to meet up with someone, hit it off with an engaging, enriching conversation, part ways, and then a week later, they’ve reached out to see if I’m interested in a role that’s just opened up on their team.

Andy: Amazing! Manifest it!

Emma: This is a fantasy that I would normally say only happens in the urban legends of LinkedIn posts, except that it’s happened to my boyfriend — twice. And my friend Katie. Also, it’s how I met Andy.

Andy: Lightning does strike! I remember leaving coffee with Emma thinking, When do we get to work together? I skipped back to the office because I knew I had a position opening up, and now I knew a person who I really wanted to accept the role. Coffee chats like that make all the awkward, not-so-fruitful ones seem more worth it.

Emma: And if you’re networking at all, there are going to be lots of duds.

Andy: Most networking is a long game. You’re not making the game-winning move; you’re setting up the board for later. I remind myself that often. It relieves a lot of the pressure. There’s not much actually at stake. I can go in, order a coffee, talk for a bit, and go home!

Emma: There’s plenty about networking that I find exhaustingly problematic. Who gets access to the people with the jobs? Does it only work for those who are likeable and charming? Is it just another method for hiring managers to find people who look and sound and act like them? At the same time, networking really is the single most effective way to get a new job — I think something like 80% of roles are filled that way.

Andy: Last week we talked about how to write an email to land a one-on-one networking opportunity. This week it’s about getting in the right headspace when someone says yes.

The good news is that you don’t have to be a particularly charming person to have a fruitful networking meet-up, or follow some sort of pre-written script. All you need is some curiosity and a bit of willingness. It’s simple. Doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Emma: For the most part, I enjoy informational interviews and coffee meet-ups and other networky-type things, primarily because I enjoy talking to people. It is rarely a challenge for me to make conversation. I’m pointing this out because I know this is not a universal trait. I remember recommending informational interviews to my boyfriend when he was breaking into a new field. The look in his eyes. One chatty lady’s small talk is another person’s hellscape.

Andy: It’s particularly hard when all you want is a job — you don’t want a pal, a mentor, or some insight. Who cares about setting up the long game when you’re totally focused on the short game? It’s why I’ve done my best networking when I’m happily employed in a job I love, talking to other people in a similar boat.

Emma: And why those networking mixers where everyone’s looking for work can feel like a room full of the living dead.

Andy: Yes! Everyone is so desperate and hungry, and no one has any hope to spare.

Emma: For lots of people who feel bamboozled by networking, the big question is: What are we supposed to talk about when the thing we both know we’re talking about — getting a job — is not actually being talked about?

Andy: Great question. Let’s start way zoomed out. The reason you’re meeting up with this person is to help them realize how much they’d love to work with you someday. That way, when a role opens up on their team, or someone asks them for a referral, your face pops into their head.

Emma: That sounds like an impossibly subjective target to hit, but lucky for us, most people are looking for all the same things in the people they want to work with: someone who is interested, engaged, and authentic.

I know, I know, easier said than done. But notice how I said “interested” as opposed to “interesting.” That’s probably the biggest piece of advice I can give anyone who is walking into one of these scenarios. I also find it way less intimidating to be interested in someone than to try to impress them with how interesting I am.

Andy: It takes the burden off of you — your only prep is to have some good quality questions and a few curiosity areas. You’re not tap-dancing for them; you’re showing them how your eyes light up. Does that make sense?

Emma: It does. If you feel anxiety at the thought of any silence in the conversation, pocketing three topics can alleviate that. Hit a quiet spot? Pull a topic. That one’s run its course? Try another.

Andy: When you hit the end of your topics, or the conversation just feels done, no problem. Wrap the meeting up! A coffee meet-up doesn’t need to be a four-hour mind meld to be successful. I think I met with Emma for 40-ish minutes that first time, and half of it was spent at the counter deciding if I should order an egg sandwich or not.

What to Talk About at a Coffee Meet-Up Networking Thingy

Remember: these things aren’t really interviews. You don’t need to prep for them the same way you’d prep if an offer was officially at stake — no need to stress about coming up with examples of previous experiences, or listing your strengths and weaknesses, or figuring out how to turn the conversation back to you. Your only goal is to enjoy your conversation.

There’s a good chance you already know what you admire about this person you’re meeting up with, or what you want to learn about their role or company. Great. Go with that.

But if the only question you can come up with is How can I get a job where you work? spend a half hour or so looking for other curiosity areas. Check out their LinkedIn, or the profiles of other people in similar roles — what stands out? Take a look at the careers page of their company. What does the organization value? Where are they growing right now? When in doubt, tuck a few of these conversation starters in your back pocket.

Their Career Moves

How did you go from X to Y?
What was it like to work at so-and-so when it was just starting out?
I saw that you made the leap from B to D — how’d you do that? What did it feel like?
What was your “big break” and how did you land it?
Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
What are some of the moments in your career that you’ll never forget?

Their Projects & Process

Tell me about X project. What were some of the victorious moments? Were there down times when it didn’t seem like it was going to work?
What’s it like to get started on a new initiative? How has that changed over the years?
What tools do you use?
What’s a day in your life like?
Do you have any key habits or touch points in the day or week?

Their Teammates

Is there anything your juniors do that really makes your heart sing?
What do you look for in a report?
I’m looking into getting more training — is there any program you recommend?
Where are you seeing good work come out of?

Their Advice

What would you tell your past self at my stage in your career?
What advice has been instrumental to you?
What worries did you have that you’ve learned you didn’t need to worry about?
Any mistakes to avoid in applying or putting together my materials?
Here’s an issue at work that I’m dealing with. What have you done?