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Advice for getting the most out of one-on-ones

by MarisaJurczyk1 min read21st Mar 20208 comments


EA ConferencesEventsCommunity

I've been chatting with some first time EAG participants over the last couple of days and have been passing on what I think is pretty conventional first-time EAG advice: prioritize one-on-ones above (just about) all else.

Then comes the question: how do you go about scheduling one-on-ones? I thought it might be useful to crowdsource some advice, particularly for undergrads and early-career professionals for whom this might be their first conference ever. (I have thoughts as well that I'll share below.)

Specific questions I imagine might be useful:

  • Who should I meet with?
  • What's the best way to score a meeting with someone I want to talk to? (especially if I don't have any immediately useful skills or knowledge to share)
  • What if someone I really want to talk to doesn't respond? Should I follow up?
  • What do I say? What sorts of questions should I ask?
  • What should I do after the conference? Should I follow up? How often/in what way?
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First: before you schedule any one-on-ones at EAG (or wherever you are), think about what you want to get out of them/the conference in general. This post includes some sample goals to consider. What your goals are will pretty much dictate what one-on-ones will be most valuable for you.

I'm coming at this as someone whose primary goal for EAGs has generally been to clarify my career plans, and secondary goal has been to make more EA friends, so my advice will likely be skewed towards that.

Who should I meet with?

I usually find myself scheduling three types of one-on-ones

1. People who have a clear connection with my interests or projects (~70%)

2. Peers who share similar personal interests, hobbies, etc. (~20%)

3. People working in areas I don't know much about but would like to learn more about and could plausibly see as changing my mind about a particular cause area / career option / etc. (~10%)

You can also get more people to schedule one-on-ones with you by filling out your conference app profile in full and including a couple things you're interested in talking with people about. Also, if you're using the Grip app, indicate "Interested" on other attendees' profiles. The more you do this, the more meeting requests you'll likely get!

What's the best way to score a meeting with someone I want to talk to? (especially if I don't have any immediately useful skills or knowledge to share)

First, speaking from experience, I find that EAs are more likely than average to hold a meeting with you even if you don't have anything tangible to offer them. When you think about it, by helping you have more of an impact, they're also increasing they're own impact, which is motivating for most EAs. Don't let not having anything to offer immediately keep you from reaching out to someone you think you could have a valuable conversation with!

That said, when you ask someone to meet, it helps if you add a sentence or two about what you'd like to talk about / why you think they'd be useful to talk to. This helps them prepare for the call better and (from anecdotal evidence) makes you more likely to get a response since they know exactly how the call will be useful for you/them.

What if someone I really want to talk to doesn't respond? Should I follow up?

IMO, it depends, and it helps if you can read some non-obvious social cues here (or can get advice from someone who can).

Some things that have worked for me and others:

  • Offering to meet (perhaps virtually) later in the week / the following week, in case the person has a full schedule during the conference weekend
  • Meeting during their office hours (another thing first-timers are sometimes intimidated by but is actually really useful!)

What do I say? What sorts of questions should I ask?

This varies quite a bit based on what you want to know. Whatever that is, you'll want to spend some time thinking about this before.

If you're totally new to one-on-ones, a quick Google search on sample informational interview questions will help get you started.

If you're the type of person who gets anxious about one-on-ones, I find it helpful to run through the conversation in my head mentally ahead of time, jotting down points I want to talk about / questions I want to ask. My conversations don't usually follow the script in actuality, but it soothes my nerves a bit to have something to fall back on in case the conversation lulls.

Also helps to have a few pocket small-talk questions handy, particularly EA-specific ones. Things like "how did you get involved in EA?" and "what cause areas are you most excited about?"

What should I do after the conference? Should I follow up? How often/in what way?

EAG is a bit more informal than most conferences, so I find that the rules are a little more relaxed. It's pretty typical to friend EAs on Facebook after the conference to keep in touch. It's also nice to send a quick thank you email/message after the conference, especially to people more senior than you, and let them know down the line how you've used their advice.

One last thing: If one-on-ones are nerve-wracking for you, you're not alone! As someone who had my first in-person interactions at EAG a year ago, I wasn't sure what to expect meeting with EAs for the first time, but I've found EAs to be incredibly helpful and friendly. And, if for whatever reason, if you find your experience to be anything less than that, CEA has an awesome community health team available to help you out. :)

4MichaelA8moThis seems like great advice to me. This part particularly rings true: I was very surprised with how many "EA celebrities"* were happy to meet with me at EAG, despite me being pretty new to EA and not having much to contribute for them. And they seemed not just begrudgingly willing based on a cost-benefit analysis of the possibility they'd increase my impact, but genuinely enthusiastic about being helpful, asking me about my current plans, etc. So definitely don't be too shy about reaching out to people! *Source: My own strange, nerdy perceptions, rather than language anyone else has used :D

The EA Global organizers have been emphasizing to more experienced participants (like staff at EA organizations) that this is their chance to do some mentorship and help newer people with their projects and careers. I'd hope that most experienced EAs at a conference are there with that mindset. I'm grateful to the people who gave me advice and pointed me to resources when I was starting out, and I'm happy to have such meetings with other EAs if I can be useful to them. 

Personally, what I like to see in a meeting invite is a specific topic or several topics the person wants to talk about, rather than a vague interest in talking in general. Even if it's sensitive enough that they don't spell out exactly what they want to talk about, I want to know that they do have something specific in mind.

I have a rough draft of questions that I sometimes send to people who are thinking of contacting someone on the EA London directory.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What is the purpose of meeting with this person?
  • What could you gain?
  • What could they gain?
  • Is it worth their time? (Potentially let people know why you think it may be useful)

To help them decide to meet you can give your background/skills in their areas of interest

Questions you could ask (choose relevant ones)

  • Why did you want to do X?
  • What was your background before X?
  • What are the biggest bottlenecks in cause X?
  • What skills are most useful for this role?
  • What projects/volunteering should/could I do?
  • What is the process for being selected for interviews?
    How should I prepare for interviews in this area?
  • If I were to be a good candidate for role X in one year, what would be the best additions to my CV?
  • How do you do well in this job?
  • What do you wish you knew before working here?
  • Can you think of somewhere else I could have more impact with my current background and skills?
  • What do you do day to day?
  • What impact do you think you have/could have?
  • What might be the most impactful thing you achieved last year/month?
  • What might be the most impactful thing you achieve next year/month?
  • What's a bottleneck you have with regard to having more impact?
  • What would you do if you weren’t working here?
  • What do you think is the most neglected project/activity in your field?
  • If you had all your living costs paid for, what project would you work on and why?
  • What was the last thing you changed your mind about (in relation to your career)?
    What was the most useful thing you’ve learned in the last week/month/year?
  • (Meta) How could these questions be improved? Were there any particularly good or bad ones?

Who should I meet with?

People you think could help you with your goals. People you think you could help with their goals. And some random people too, because serendipity and unknown unknowns also matter.

What's the best way to score a meeting with someone I want to talk to? (especially if I don't have any immediately useful skills or knowledge to share)

Email them and ask to set up a meeting.

What if someone I really want to talk to doesn't respond? Should I follow up?

In my opinion, follow up once after 1-2 weeks, then leave them alone. They usually get back to you eventually.

What do I say? What sorts of questions should I ask?

Depends on who you are talking to and why.

What should I do after the conference? Should I follow up? How often/in what way?

In my opinion, it really depends on the relationship.

I've found a couple of other useful resources since first posting this:

2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:37 AM

If everyone records their 1-on-1s and rates their value on a scale of 1 to 10, along with various features that might be predictive of 1-on-1 value (e.g. how junior/senior they are, whether you're working on similar problems, whether you are from the same/different countries, your general conversational prompts/questions/conversation topic, etc.) then we can assemble a dataset and develop a predictive model of how valuable a 1-on-1 is likely to be. That helps with choosing who to meet with, and also persuading people to meet with you (if the predictive model says you should meet, that increases the odds they respond), and also knowing what to talk about (check to see which questions/conversation topics are predictive of a valuable 1-on-1).

Actually for the questions/conversation topics part, if I was an EAG attendee, I would start a thread of question/conversation ideas on Facebook or somewhere for people to brainstorm in, and then use some kind of approval voting so people can figure out what the best prompts are over time. If you have a good conversation, try to figure out what prompt could have created that conversation in retrospect then add it to the list.

I'm more likely to do this if there's a specific set of data I'm supposed to collect, so that I can write it down before I forget.