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We all do it – ask to meet with someone we don’t know in order to learn about his or her career. Call it networking, informational interviewing, co-caffeinating – asking a person you admire to get coffee with you for professional purposes is an art form. So just like in any good art, here are some basic rules to follow:
DO: Explain Who You Are
Your introductory message should not be a cryptograph – this isn’t National Treasure; I’m not Nicholas Cage, and if I have no idea who you are, who sent you to me, or what your intent is, I’m not going to be intrigued and go on a mission to save the USA. I’m going to delete the email immediately and run my spam filters.
Make it clear where you got their contact information, who you are, and why you’re asking to meet with them. And for Christ’s sake, use an appropriate subject line.*
*Inappropriate subject lines include: “hey,” “I want to know you…” and “HANGOUT!!!”
DON’T: Make Them Your Personal Scheduler
Most likely, you don’t run a country. Asking a busy professional to meet you out of the kindness of their heart and then giving them one half-hour window in next three weeks when you’re available is Putin-level diva behavior.
I don’t usually traffic in absolutes, but forcing someone to write 30 logistical emails before you ever even meet is an absolute way to make them hate you. As is asking them to travel an hour each way to meet at the coffee shop under your apartment in Chinatown. Make it easy for someone to say yes. Not impossible.
DON’T: Perform a 90-minute Monologue
I get it – you want to come off as accomplished. But spending the entire time talking about yourself and what you want makes it seem like you’re workshopping your one-person show rather than asking for advice. Why did you ask to meet with this person in the first place? What are you hoping to learn from them? Come with a list of questions prepared and please, please….
DO: Google Them First
Knowing the basics about someone’s career lets you start in the middle of the conversation rather than the beginning. A half-hour is not much time. It’s the length of one episode of 30 Rock or one Facebook high school reunion wormhole. Knowing the milestones of someone’s career and how they’re similar to what you want allows you dive right in rather than stand by the side of the pool talking about the weather for 15 minutes.
DON’T: Ask For Favors People Wouldn’t Do For Their Own Mothers
No one is going to read three 200-page screenplays and give you written notes “ideally for free.” No one is going to “keep an eye out for any good writing jobs in NY, LA or Chicago” and send you the applications. No one is going to mentor you “for the next few years at least” for the price of a latte.**
Remember that despite talking about your creative hopes and dreams and hopefully laughing over a coffee bean varietal, you still don’t really know this person. Save asking someone to avenge your dog’s death until you’ve spent at least 10 hours together.
**All real things I have been asked to do at a first-time coffee meeting.
DO: Take Notes and Follow Up
If someone mentions the name of a person they can connect you with, write the name down. Same with any advice, classes or shows mentioned during the meeting – write them down and put them in the thank you email. Not only does this make you seem like an active listener, it also gives you something to do rather than make direct eye contact (always a plus!).
And if they ask you to stay in touch, do it! It will make you sweaty and nervous, but that’s the true essence of networking – fear and BO.
DO: Actually Buy the Coffee
Self-explanatory, yet so simple to botch: you issued the invite, you pay. That means you get to the centrally-located, coffee-bearing location at the easily-agreed upon date and time EARLY and sit by the door scanning faces for your coffee date so you can get in line with them. Be a gentleman or gentlelady when it comes to coffee, and thou shalt be rewarded with much career knowledge.***
***Taken from Chaucer’s Big Book of Medieval Networking