4 ways to crush every “pick-your-brain” networking meeting

You did the research to find interesting professionals in your field, made the ask to meet up and landed a networking or informational meeting with someone you admire. In some ways, the hard part of networking is over.

However, whether you’re using this meet ‘n’ greet to gauge your interest in a certain field or are trying to land a job or mentor, there’s still work to be done to avoid wasting this new connection. Here are four steps to make the most of every networking meeting (and ease any nerves you might have).

Research the basics before you go

Networking meetings usually aren’t long, so you may only have 30 minutes to an hour to soak up as much info as possible. Avoid wasting any of it by researching their basic info ahead of time.

“Do whatever you can to answer a question yourself before asking the other person,” says Gorick Ng, a career coach at Harvard University and author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right. “You want to ask questions that are worthy of the other person’s time.”

Related: How making a “baller list” can help you choose a career, find mentors and get a job

From LinkedIn, you can learn about someone’s career history so you don’t have to ask them to list their entire resume. From Twitter or Instagram, you can get a sense of their professional outlook, takes on the field,= and general personality. Interviews they’ve participated in or articles they’ve written can help you learn more of their background or give you a sense of industry trends. There’s no need to dive too deep — don’t follow someone’s private Instagram to find out how they spend their weekends or how many kids they have — but anything public is fair fodder.

Prep some questions that dig deeper

The key to a good networking conversation is asking good questions. But what is a good question? As mentioned, “A good question leads to an answer that is, first and foremost, non-googleable,” says Ng.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ask someone about their career history or past jobs. But it means asking “why” and “how” questions rather than “what” or “who” — questions that build on your knowledge of someone rather than confirm basic facts. Instead of “Where did you work before this company?” try “Why did you choose to move to a larger company when you were at a startup before?” (If the person you’re meeting with doesn’t have a lot of information about their life or career online, asking them how they ended up in their current role can be a good jumping-off point.)

Once you know someone’s story, you can level up to asking for their expertise and opinions. “Questions that prompt the other person to think will lead to a more personal conversation,” says Ng. Emily Carrion, VP of marketing at Esper and mentorship expert, likes to ask people to reflect on the choices — and mistakes — they’ve made in their career and how they achieved what they’ve achieved.

Some of her favorite questions include:

  1. What would you do or have done in X situation?

  2. What’s something would you have done differently in your career if you could go back?

  3. What was the one thing that really set you up for success?

  4. Where do you go to learn about your field?

Related: The 7 biggest networking mistakes college students make

“You’re trying to reverse-engineer someone’s career,” Carrion says. “What did they do to get where they are? Did they know what they were doing at the time? What were their big breaks?”

It’s a good idea to prep some questions before your meeting (and totally okay to bring a notebook to reference with you!), but don’t sacrifice listening closely and responding organically in order to stick to your questions. Often, the most helpful information will come out of digging deeper as you chat.

Follow up and keep in touch

A networking meeting might be a one-off — or it could be the start of a career-long relationship if you click with someone and play your cards right.

A day or so after your meeting, send a specific, personal and genuine follow-up email, thanking them for their time and insights. If they offered additional help like connecting you with somebody else, reading a cover letter or giving their thoughts on an idea, follow up on that. If you want them to keep you in mind for positions at their company, this is a good time to mention it.

Even if they can’t give you a leg up right away, they might down the line, so keep in touch every few months in organic ways. Shoot them a note when you see a relevant article or when they have an exciting professional update. If they seemed open to it, write to them for their opinion on a job you’re considering or when you have a question about a norm or trend in the field.

Keep up the momentum with more meetings

One coffee chat does not a professional network make. Each meeting you take will provide different perspectives, information and resources — and you never know who you might totally click with. Plus, the more you network, the easier it gets.

Related: You can definitely start networking in college. Here are 6 places to find connections.

You don’t need to take 10 meetings every month, but create a list of cool people in your field who have jobs you might want and start working your way down the list.

And if you still feel a little nervous every time you walk in the door to meet someone new? Remind yourself that you probably have valuable information to share with them, too, whether it’s your perspective as a younger generation, a connection or information on a new tool. “So many times in my career, I thought someone was showing up to help me and then I ended up helping them,” Carrion says.

At the end of the day, this is a chance for two people to talk about something they’re both interested in. And that can be interesting and, dare I say, fun.

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