X being a meeting for coffee, a quick chat with an important person that a friend has arranged, and recently from a student who was able after 2 years to finally set up a conversation over Christmas Break with a major executive at an organization of interest.!
What is this interaction?
Now, networking can be a rather nebulous thing, and you may indeed find yourself more often than you might like siting down across the table from a person having an interaction that you do not understand with someone who you don’t really know which someone else arranged for you. However, you should treat this as a job interview if for no other reason than for your own sanity, that way at least one person knows what the interactional frame is. The truth is that the person across the table from you may not have any expectations for this interaction either, or maybe they do (and if you get the sense that they do, you should let them guide things), or maybe they don’t YET, but when they hear about you and what you are passionate about, they might be prepared to offer you something. Most people who have jobs have need of assistance, and hiring someone can sometimes be just a question of timing and bureaucracy. Maybe they can easily arrange something for you, but this will only happen if you are ready!!
This actually happened at my very first informational interview, but because I was completely unprepared, I was in no position to recognize let alone accept the opportunity that was presenting itself to me.
So, the story:
When I began my job here at Georgetown working with the MLC program, I was given the task of conducting 50 informational interviews over the course of my first semester. Now, for those of you who have not yet begin informational interviewing, let me tell you: THAT IS A LOT!!I figured I would start with former jobs. The executive producer at McNeil Lehrer Productions had a sudden opening in her schedule for the following day. Knowing how busy she is, I jumped at the chance to meet with her, and made the mistake (since I had previously worked there) of thinking that I did not need to prepare. Or that is to say I was half-prepared: I was ready to talk about myself and my interests, but had not taken any time to look into what she or the studio happened to have been recently working on.
What do you know about X?
They had recently produced a film about generation Y, so when I started talking about language, communication and culture, her mind went immediately to the communication styles of the multigenerational workplace and so naturally, she asked me what I knew about the expectations and cross-cultural communication issues surrounding milennials entering the workplace for the first time!! Well, I had never really thought about it, but because I felt like I needed to be an expert in this moment, having nothing, I just completely shut down.
What I missed in that moment
Now, I had been a researcher in the past on a film that they had produced about linguistics. It is not outside the realm of possibility that she might have offered me the opportunity to consult or do some research on this or another project had I recognized this opportunity for what it was: a chance to demonstrate enthusiasm and curiosity, not necessarily expertise.
The good news is that this associative skill is one that develops with practice, but it can be very hard for an introvert like me, for whom social interaction can already feel overwhelming, and direct questions like these can feel like a challenge of my credibility or motivations.
So what can we do to be ready?
One strategy that I have learned to employ in this moment is simply to turn the question around. “Hmm, no, I have not been exposed to language use in exactly that context. What struck you about it? What do you imagine would be salient to an outsider? Did you encounter any examples?” not only does this buy you a little bit of time, but chances are good that there is some specific observation that is motivating their question. The sooner you can get to the “question behind the question” the better! Since they have been thinking about this already, their thoughts are more accessible, and once they get talking, that can prime your thinking, and it becomes much easier for you to engage.
Learn what strategies work for you. Perhaps you want to ask the person who set up the meeting what they imagine this person to be most interested in and curious about these days. Have your friends and family imagine with you what kinds of questions might come up.
So, what I mean when I say that you should treat it as a job interview is that you should PREPARE for it as if it were. Spend a couple hours on the organization’s website and on LinkedIn, and looking up this organization in the news. Know the organization well enough so that should the person offer assistance at some point you are prepared to tell them what you would need. For example with which members of their organization would you like to network? Do they host events that you would be interested in being involved with? If so what kind? If given the opportunity to volunteer your services, with which division would you most want to work? Why? What would you do for them? Why do they need a linguist? Help them think through how you would be best used.
Likely this person who has agreed to meet with you is very busy: do not waste their time by not having taken the time to do some work to think for a minute how you can “help them help you!”
I have heard from many students who showed up for what they thought was just a conversation and which ended up by the other interactant offering them a job. Not that you should EXPECT this (by any means), or comport yourself in the interaction in any way to suggest that you feel entitled or owed any kind of favor, but if someone offers one to you, recognize the gift which has been offered you. Be gracious! If luck, as is so often said “is where opportunity meets preparation” hold up your end of the bargain by being prepared to be lucky!