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Networking is, as its name implies, work. And like any job, networking takes skills.
That's right: there’s more to the networking hustle than showing up at an event and hitting the bar. (It takes more than inviting someone to meet for a cup of coffee, too.) Networking has its own skillset, one that you have to work to hone. But luckily, you can get good at networking. Here's a guide on how to network—from how to view this often-dreaded activity to what to say and how to keep the conversation going.
Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, a smooth talker or someone who stumbles over his words, networking can be a stressful thing to do. Talking to strangers, vying for a job or even just a business card, can reduce the calmest people into puddles of anxiety. But if you can change how you think about networking, the experience can be more enjoyable. Think of networking as a way to build relationships—over time.
Think about it: any time you’ve derived some benefit from networking—a new job, client, or contract—it was most likely from a relationship you cultivated for awhile.
Sure, sometimes you can translate brand new connections into business results, but it’s much more common to get them from long-standing relationships. So instead of forcing yourself to go to a conference to make new connections, ask someone out for coffee or lunch if that’s an environment that makes you more comfortable. Plus, you’ll be better able to have a meaningful conversation in a more private setting.
What is worse: giving a public speech off-the-cuff—or calmly reading from prepared notecards? Most people would choose the former—yet, a lot show up at networking opportunities unprepared, with no plan of what they’ll say or how they’ll say it. For every conference, meet-up, and other networking opportunity, come prepared with some talking points. And know your audience. Never show up without knowing what type of people will be there and what conversation topics will be well received.
You know what they say: Practice makes perfect. When it comes to networking, especially at a big event or conference if you decide to go that route, preparing ahead of time can help you (at least in part) deal with your nerves. “Always have a strategy and set goals ahead of time,” suggest Stephanie Abrams Cartin and Courtney Spritzer, the co-founders of Socialfly, a social media marketing and influencer agency. “More than anything it is important to know the audience you are addressing and your personal brand. Create an elevator pitch that reflects your strengths but shows your personality.” If it helps you feel prepared, research other event attendees beforehand so you know who you want to talk to and why. Think of how you’ll introduce yourself to them as well as some questions you’d want to ask them. Then, when you walk into a room filled with people, you’ll hopefully feel less overwhelmed because you have some specific goals in mind for the session.
When you are constantly self-promoting your startup or business, you come off as needy and selfish.
So what you should do instead? Strike up a genuine conversation. Ask people about their startup/business, their challenges, and their goals. When people feel like you actually care about them and are not just treating them like a transaction, they will ask you about what you’re up to and how they can help. Remember: The goal here is to treat every new interaction like a first date. Take your time to get to know the person, and I promise you will go a lot farther than if you immediately blurted out random facts about your startup.
For conferences, the best way for you to make connections with high-profile speakers is to make friends with the people who put on the conference. These people also have a treasure trove of information and advice, and are usually ignored or avoided (so you won’t have much competition).
At a conference or networking opportunity, don’t just wait for people to approach you. Lurking in the proverbial shadows won’t win you any friends—or connections. Instead, be proactive: Walk up to a group and introduce yourself. Talk with thirsty networkers in the bar line. You’ll (hopefully) be rewarded for your gutsy, go-getter attitude with a genuine conversation and a chance to connect post-conference.
If conferences are overwhelming, being active in a virtual community is the next best thing. Most professional industries have active online communities on all the major social media platforms, from regular Twitter threads on industry topics to more general Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Get online, request access and go learn about your field of interest. Consider starting by asking members what they wish they’d known when they were first becoming active in their industry (but be prepared to receive a score of responses!).
If you’d rather invest your time in a more formal setting than free online communities, consider joining a professional community in your industry, such as SHRM for human resources management, AWAI for professional writing or NSPE for licensed professional engineers. These memberships often come with a yearly fee, but it can be a worthwhile investment if it encourages you to take your participation more seriously.
You’re a slave to your smartphone, and so is the person you’re chatting up. So why would you give him a business card when you could both take out your phones and plug your contact information into them? Business cards get thrown away. Taking down a phone number and email—in your phone—on the other hand, will help you keep the conversation going after the networking opportunity is over. The caveat to this point is if you are talking to someone that is clearly five rungs above you—or even more—on the power ladder. In that case, it’s probably better to ask for a card, as that person might be a little understandably wary giving their number away.
In addition to exchanging phone numbers and emails while networking, you should also connect with people on social media. With becoming friends and followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram come with risks, it still can be worth it to show people your social side. For example, Twitter, known as the microblogging platform, is the place where many professionals build their personal brands—and if your new contacts are blogging or publishing content, they’re most likely using Twitter to amplify that content to a larger audience. By connecting on Facebook and Instagram, you can see a more complete, authentic and well-rounded picture of who your new contacts are away from the confines of their career—and they can see that for you.
You may be hoping that networking will ultimately land you an offer—but you can’t actually say that to the person with whom you’re networking. Saying things such as “are you hiring” or “can you get me a job” are akin to putting nails on a chalkboard: Asking for something immediately—especially something big—can be off-putting. Remember: networking is all about turning cold leads into warm leads. Wait until you’ve established a relationship with someone before putting out these feelers.
Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, industry newbie or a seasoned pro, here are a few additional resources to help you network successfully: