Admit it: you know networking is important, but you dread it. You’d rather be at home, curled up with a good book. You’d even be happy if the book itself was about how to network — at least that would be better than actually having to go to a networking event.
What is networking?
Networking is when you interact with a group of colleagues, peers or professionals in order to create relationships, connections, and opportunities for your professional future.
It doesn't mean you have to know someone important, and she'll just "give" you a job. Instead, it means building relationships that can lead to other relationships that can lead to success. That's why it's called networking—you're creating a web of contacts in your life.
It's kind of a way of getting all your ducks in a row and planning for the future. Where do you want to be in five years? 10 years? You might not know now, but having a large list of contacts that can help you along the way is certainly a good start.
But...networking is hard.
Let’s face it: The real reason you hate networking is you’re afraid you’ll say something stupid, or you’ll have nothing to say at all, and then that long awkward silence will happen — you know, the one that lasts just long enough that it starts to get really uncomfortable.
One of you will inevitably mutter, “OK, well, I’ll see you later,” a business card may or may not be exchanged, and the interaction will be over (thank God!). You’ll want to be done with the event 15 minutes in, but you’ll know you’ll have to talk to more people in this weird, unstructured environment that we humans insist is an enjoyable place to gather.
How to network effectively
I get it. I was useless at networking, too… until I made a friend who is the absolute master of networking successfully both online and offline. Here are a few tips I learned about building my network from following her around.
Networking at events
1. Be genuinely interest in other people.
I used to bombard people with questions. I thought that was the only way to keep a conversation going — ask good questions, right? Yes, but that’s not all. I had one guy actually say to me, “I’m not really used to be interviewed at these things.” That’s when I knew I was overdoing it.
When I saw my friend Becca in action, I noticed that she did ask questions, but she also revealed stories about herself and shared helpful information freely. The combination of asking questions and sharing is a fine balance. Mastering this balance could just be the ultimate key to likeability.
Think about it.
Would you enjoy talking to someone who only talked about themselves and was completely uninterested in you? We’ve all met those guys. You’d also probably want a break from answering questions about yourself the whole time because that gets a little weird.
In order to form a connection with someone, you must reveal a little about yourself (tell stories that make you sound funny or look smart) and also ask questions. Make it your mission to find out what’s interesting about the person you’re speaking to. Once you get them talking about that topic that lights them up, they will love talking to you, and you can just sit back and listen.
2. Look for opportunities to help.
While following Becca around, I was taking notes like a banshee. Here are a few ways Becca helped someone in a single conversation:
- Introduced them to the online community she created on Slack to help them get a job when they had just moved to the city
- Recommended a beer they might like
- Recommended a particular Cesar Milan episode when she heard about their dog’s aggressive behavior
- Invited them to an acupuncture session when they mentioned back pain
- Recommended a book for them when they were having trouble with their teenager
Networking for events as an introvert
While anecdotal words of advice are all well and good, if the reason you detest networking events is that you’re shy, you may still be feeling a little skeptical. In that case, here are some tips the introverted networker can try to get the most out of these events with the least amount of strain:
3. Arrive early for “introvert hour.”
The earlier you get to the event, the smaller the crowd is likely to be. This can make it easier for the introverts among us to approach strangers and spark up conversations without feeling quite so threatened. Plus, since there are generally fewer people to talk to, your chances of having a lengthier, more quality conversation with someone are higher. And making even one true connection early on in the night is ideal for both confidence building and accessing an easy gateway for more introductions, as your new pal could serve as a springboard for meeting others without having to do “cold calls” with yet more strangers. A win-win!
4. Set realistic goals for yourself.
Thinking you should be waltzing in and getting to know every single attendee in order for the event to be a success is only setting yourself up for failure. And besides, when it comes to networking, quality is by far better than quantity — this isn’t a business card collection contest. Set an attainable goal of making five meaningful connections — then, high tail outta there and get home to Netflix as your reward. You earned it!
5. Identify a few icebreaker topics in advance.
Once you get to chatting, the conversation will ideally take its natural course sans script, but it can never hurt to have a handful of icebreakers at the ready. A few you could try out? “You seem like you’ve been to one of these events before — I haven’t. Any tips you could give me on what to expect?” “Are you originally from (city’s name), or did work bring you here?” “What do you like to do for fun — besides living it up at networking events, that is?”
6. Don’t be afraid to take a breather.
As an introvert, socializing with other people (especially strangers) is likely to function as a pretty big drain on your energy levels. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, don’t hesitate to dip outside, to the bathroom, or to the food table to have a tiny recharge moment for yourself. Breathe, and remember the intention you set for yourself this evening. How close are you to accomplishing your goal? Remember that the sooner it’s done, the sooner you can head home.
7. Volunteer to help run the event
You may be thinking this sounds really ridiculously outside your comfort zone, but you’d be surprised at the positive impact this kind of contribution can have on your networking experience at large. As one of the night’s planners, you’ll be entering into the event with pre-made contacts by default, and attendees will be more inclined to seek you out to connect (versus you doing all the legwork). That’s because being one of the event’s organizers makes you seem action-oriented, dependable, and connected yourself — and therefore, like someone worth knowing. This can have a major impact on the number and quality of the connections you make.
So, now that you know what makes people good at networking in-person, let’s talk about the more fun type of networking — i.e., the kind you can do without even leaving your computer — thanks to social media! (Note: These are also the same tips for following up with someone after you’ve met in person if you’d like to keep in touch.)
8. Send job leads, interesting articles, or recommend good books.
For example, I’m subscribed to Seth Godin’s daily blog, and every once in awhile I get something that makes me think of someone in my network. I forward it to them, and they love that I thought of them.
9. Use a friendly tool, like Slack, to create your own networking community.
It’s free, and it spreads like wildfire. Becca grew a community organically to 1,000 members in a few months. It’s become a hub for events, careers, job search help, and random shop talk for our city’s technology sector.
You can create a free Slack group for whomever and whatever you want. Everyone you invite into the group just needs to have something in common. It could be an industry like technology, a location like NYC, a career focus like Human Resources or People Operations, or a field of study like Geology.
Like-minded people love a way to unite, especially if it’s easy, fun, and they don’t have to leave their couch.
Networking in college
You don't have to wait until you're in the "real world" to start your networking efforts. Starting early will set you up for success later on. So, how do you starting building your network while you're still a student?
10. Visit your career services.
Set up a meeting with a career counselor to discuss your ambitions and goals, and ask for advice on how to realize them. You don't have to wait until senior year to start the process; talking to a counselor earlier will enable you to find resources and talk to people who can help you with your goals while you still have time to explore.
11. Talk to faculty.
Ask a professor if she's looking for research assistants or has a project in which you could take part.
12. Connect with alumnae.
Connect with graduates of your college who are in an industry you want to pursue. They can likely give you valuable advice and may even offer you internships and or other opportunities.
13. Take advantage of internships.
Internships can be important resources for your career. Make sure you make the most of these opportunities: Talk to as many professionals at the company as you can, ask for advice, and work hard.
14. Follow up with contacts.
Always make sure to follow up with contacts after you have made them. After all, the purpose of networking is to make contact with people you are going to actually reach out to and/or keep in touch with. So networking does not stop after the event is over. You have to make that extended effort to then reach out.
15. Keep confident.
At the end of the day, networking can be intimidating, especially if you have social anxiety. Keep confident in that you're doing your personal best. All you can be is you.
Networking: Practice makes perfect
The good news is that when you learn enough about networking, you’ll find a way of doing it that works for you. It won’t feel stupidly uncomfortable once you find your own networking muscles and build them up.
Imagine getting home and seeing your inbox full of thank you’s from your newly founded network or seeing your name mentioned a bunch of times in the Slack group for creating such an awesome online community that’s bringing like-minded people together.
Imagine leaving a networking event feeling like you made genuine connections, instead of awkwardly collecting business cards (which, by the way, you have no idea what to do with now).
To start with, try one of the techniques above.
You’ll grow your network faster than you ever thought possible, be it at your next network event or via social media.
Natalie Fisher is an enthusiastic HR Generalist who loves her job! She's been on over 50 interviews and received 48 job offers. Download her Free Guide: This is how you network Now - Strategic Networking Cheat Sheet.