“I’d be happy to introduce you, if you’d like…”
Success! This small but crucial aspect of professional networking can seem like the light at the end of the tunnel for a student seeking an internship, research opportunity or early career position after graduation. While an offered introduction can nudge the door of opportunity open, the way that a student proceeds can slam that door shut just as quickly.
How do you turn an email into a meaningful dialogue that could lead to a long-term professional relationship, further introductions, and/or a recommendation to apply? Here are 9 ways to turn an introduction into a productive conversation.
Have a goal: What do you hope to achieve with this introduction? Is this a chance to seek advice or learn about an organization that interests you? Perhaps this person works for or with an organization you’d like to join and could potentially make an internal referral on your behalf. Knowing your aims before you accept the invitation is important; otherwise, you’ll waste your time and theirs. If you cannot think of a goal, politely pass on the introduction “at this time”. Then, if you determine you’re interested in the future, you can always request the offered intro at a later date.
Do your research: Before you follow up on an introduction, be sure you know who the person is, where they work, what that organization does, what the industry trends are, and how your interests may align. Many people lose time and credibility by asking, “So, what do you do?” as their first question during an introduction or informational interview. With access to the internet, there is no reason to begin this way Resources like Whitman Connect, LinkedIn, company websites, news sites and employer review sites like Vault.com and Glassdoor provide information that will allow you to prepare “how” and “why” questions instead of asking for facts.
Be professional and timely: Even if the person offering to introduce you is a long-time friend or colleague, this is a professional situation. Respect your colleague’s reputation by behaving accordingly: respond quickly, proof-read your messages, avoid slang, and show your appreciation. Always include a current copy of your resume as an attachment to your follow-up e-mail. This is not too forward, as many students often assume, but simply provides the new contact with a summary of your experience.
Schedule a meeting: Moving from the introduction to a more substantive interaction is often the toughest part. This is what networking really is – relationship building. To start, request an informational interview, which can be conducted via phone call, Skype or Google Hangout, in-person coffee, or a meeting at their office. The key to the informational interview is to keep it short and relevant. Focus on learning and advice that will be helpful in your professional pursuits. I recommend asking for 15-20 minutes for a phone call and no more than 30 minutes if it’s in-person. If the initial conversation goes well, you can suggest another meeting at a later date, perhaps in a different venue. For instance, if you’d like to continue a conversation after speaking on the phone with an alumna at X organization, then offer to meet for coffee (your treat) at a location near her office.
Bring questions: Once you’ve done your research (see point 2), write down or type thoughtful questions. These questions may address specific information or be open-ended invitations for reflective responses. I like this piece about the flow of the informational interview and its suggestions for questions to ask, but be open to letting the conversation flow. To ensure you remember everything you’d like to discuss, write specifics and questions to address in a notepad (where you are also taking notes during the conversation!) so you can refer to them.
Listening is key: There will be time to share your story, but it is important to hear what this expert has to share, first. Consider what their insight means and ask follow-up questions accordingly.
Consider your narrative: At some point, you will be asked to talk about yourself – whether it’s worded that way, or phrased as something like, “Walk me through your resume.” It is important that you can share your story in a clear, relevant and concise way that will place emphasis in the areas of the greatest importance without simply regurgitating the facts they already know about you. To craft your quick biography, Dorie Clark, marketing and political strategist, public speaker and author of Reinventing You, recommends to “block time to write down anecdotes that best capture your experience, successes, failures, and views of the world.” Review this collection for themes–ideas or experiences that recur likely indicate what you value and how you thrive. Practice telling different versions of these stories (yes, out loud) so you are comfortable with speaking about yourself without boasting in a way that communicates what you’ve done, what you’re interested in, what you hope to accomplish and why it matters.
Get connected to their network: Often listed as one of the key elements of the Informational Interview, a crucial piece of effectively and efficiently building a network of professional relationships is asking the question: “Who else should I meet with to learn more about XX?” or “Is there anyone else you recommend I speak to about this company/topic?” This move significantly increases the the breadth of your network and the productivity of your meeting. Be as specific as possible about the type of contact you’re seeking, which makes it much easier for your new connection to identify potential leads.
And, most important: Don’t forget a thoughtful thank-you note. Showing appreciation and staying in touch with those willing to assist you in your search is one of the most-overlooked steps to effectively building professional relationships. Timing and authenticity are the priorities, so be quick and genuine in your response. Whenever possible, mail a handwritten note. You can often find company addresses online; write “℅ Name Here” on the first line to ensure your contact receives your card. If e-mail is your only option, write thoughtfully and consider including a link to a recent article relevant to your conversation or any resources you discussed (“The title of the book I mentioned was XX by so-and-so”). Remember to thank the person who made the introduction as well as the person who hopefully responded. For more guidance about the professional thank you note, here is a blog post by Jennifer Winchell, Stewardship Coordinator for Whitman College.