3 ways to take informational interviews to the next level

You wrote the perfect informational interview request and received a “YES!” Congrats. Now, it’s time to prepare for the conversation.

When you first started doing informational interviews, you focused on asking good questions and treating it like a job interview, without an actual job on the table. Having done your research and established a learning outcome in mind, you were successful and started building confidence in this process.

Whether you’re still working through jitters or are an informational interview veteran, here are three clear ways to take your upcoming conversation to the next level:

Stop interviewing + start connecting

You’re not sending very many cold asks anymore. (If you’re like, “what’s that?” We’ve got you — read this first) You’re likely meeting most people through work or introductions via your network. You’ve got your pitch down and you’re about expanding your world: opportunities, growth, reach.

When you’re sitting in front of a person you’re psyched to connect with, you want to have a true conversation. You don’t want a chat that wanders aimlessly and limps to a close where neither of you feel like you got much out of it, or where you blandly ask a litany of questions.

An executive leadership coach once gave me a winning format for structuring these conversations. She recommended the following conversation opener:

  • Thanks for taking the time to meet with me
  • I know your time is valuable
  • I’d like to focus on what I’ve been up to
  • I’d also like to focus on what I hope is next
  • I hope you can help

That’s it. It’s straightforward but sophisticated. This isn’t a time to talk about your last vacation or great podcast you’ve found. This is elevator pitch time. You’re explaining who you are, what you do, and where you want to go next.

But y’all — this works.

You’re probably scratching your head thinking: “Diane, what about my questions?” If your pitch is polished, you’ll get everything you need. Or maybe you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t I let the other person lead the conversation?” My answer is no — your interviewee is busy enough. You want her to make time to meet with you, drive the conversation, and then help you? No way. They’re sacrificing their time — it’s up to you to make that time worth it.

I’ve used this three-part agenda over 60 times, with Fortune 500 executives, non-profit leaders, entrepreneurs, and across different industries from retail to tech…you get the picture—it works.

Act like you’ve been there before

As you progress in your careers, your network will (hopefully) elevate with it. If you’re like me, sometimes it takes all your effort to not fangirl when you get to meet someone incredible. Vince Lombardi once gave sage advice to an overzealous player on his football team: “ […] the next time you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

What does this mean in a professional setting? Oftentimes, nerves and over-excitement become a stumbling block. And that’s natural — you’re only human, after all. But you’ve got to keep your head on straight — don’t let the “informational” part fool you — this is a real interview.

You’re really talking to someone who has the potential to influence your career. More importantly, you have the opportunity to build an authentic relationship with limitless possibilities. The best way to get past the nerves is through practice.

Do you have your story nailed down? Is your pitch tight? If someone told you they had your dream job, would you be able to explain why you’re the best candidate?

Regardless, your goal here is three-fold:

  • Represent yourself and your story well so you start a relationship
  • Learn something new
  • Come away with a next step that moves your career and goals forward

Discover what you have that they need

I recently heard former Bloomberg reporter and current NYSE Executive Vice Chairman Betty Liu recount how she got an elusive interview with business billionaire Warren Buffett. For years, she wasn’t making much headway with her requests. She decided to change the way she thought about it by instead thinking, what could she do for him? Realizing her unique access to news, she began sending articles and insights about Buffett’s companies. Before long, Betty’s next interview request was accepted. Success!

So as you prepare for your informational, ask yourself — what’s your unique value proposition?

Are you in school or a recent graduate? Maybe the person you’re interviewing has a child/co-worker/friend who could use advice and insights. Do you have access to audiences this person needs? At work or in a volunteer organization, can you influence speaking opportunities? Perhaps the person you’re interviewing is looking to expand their reach? What about your manager or organization’s leadership? Could you create connections down the road?

If you’re really stumped … remember, you inherently have the ability to be a sounding board and a true connection. So, keep in touch and jump in when the opportunity presents itself.

With these three tips in your back pocket and the fact that someone has already said “yes” to an informational interview, you’re ready to go next level. When in doubt, remember we all crave belonging and significance. Take this opportunity to build a connection, grow a relationship, and advance your career. You’ve got this!

This article first appeared on Career Contessa.