Hate networking? Here’s how to make it less onerous—and more rewarding.
By Sheryl Nance-Nash
What is it about networking that sometimes makes it seems more a necessary evil than a smart (sometimes even fun!) strategy for moving your career, business, or personal life forward?
Maybe you think you don’t have time to run around to meetings and events, or you’re a wallflower and chitchat is a challenge. There are any number of reasons networking is not on the top of your must-do list. But if you succumb to excuses, you stand to lose. Those connections you don’t make will be made by someone else.
Take a deep breath and relax. There’s a method to the “madness”—an art to networking. No worries if you’re not a natural. Networking can be learned. Networking pros offer a 10-step plan to do just that.
1. Get your head in the game
Adjust your mind-set. “If done properly, networking can enhance your personal and professional life,” says Devay Campbell, author of The BEST Job Interview Advice Book. Your network and the relationships you develop will impact your net worth. The power of networking cannot be denied.”
2. Decide what you want to get out of networking
Expanding your network is a lofty idea. “Be specific about the types of people you are ultimately looking to meet,” says Nancy Shenker, founder and CEO of theONswitch, a marketing strategy business.’
Ask yourself a few questions: Why is networking important for me? What do I want and need? “Some people are seeking partners, a mentor, a like-minded community, or new opportunities,” says Campbell. “What do you have to give, or in what ways can you support others? Networking is a two-way street.”
“‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.’ That quote is so true when it comes to networking,” says Chris Borja, founder of Become a Better Networker. “Helping someone else doesn’t take anything away from you—it helps everyone.”
Collaborate rather than compete. Imagine playing a game of poker, which is traditionally very competitive. What if you could “exchange cards” with other players? “Everyone would end up with a better hand than they started with. This changes the game from having only one winner to everyone winning by having a better hand than they were originally dealt,” says Borja.
3. Develop a strategy
Set a goal of how many times each week or month you’ll attend an event where you could meet new people. Be realistic. Choose events carefully. Alumni events, industry gatherings, lectures, and fund-raisers all connect people with a common interest, which facilitates ice breaking. Borja recommends striving to attend at least one live event every week. “There’s no substitute for meeting people face-to-face. If you’re out of sight, you’re probably also out of mind,” he says.
Start to practice talking about yourself—appropriately. One of the things that gets in the way of networking is being an introvert, wondering what to say or having feelings of anxiety when asked, “Tell me about yourself” or “What do you do?” “Practice makes perfect,” says Campbell. “Use a mirror or practice your elevator speech with a friend until it sounds natural.”
Don’t rely on your business cards. “Focus on having real conversations and learning more about the person you are interacting with during face-to-face events,” Campbell advises. “Often, we have a pocket full of business cards after an event and cannot remember the people who gave them to us. If you want to be rememberable, engage in meaningful conversations versus passing out business cards.”
Network before you need to. For example, don’t wait until you lose a job. “Don’t wait until you have a need to start networking,” says Borja. “It results in desperation and is a turnoff to people you meet.”
4. Work the room
Be social. Don’t just talk to people you know. Expand your range and even look for people who are standing by themselves. “Step outside your comfort zone and interact with people of all ages and stage,” says Shenker. “Get to know the event organizer and ask him or her to make introductions to key attendees.”
You don’t want to look like a rookie. Never hand out brochures or business cards randomly. “I usually even wait until someone asks for my card, rather than assuming he or she wants it,” says Shenker.
Position yourself at live events where the traffic flow is higher. This provides additional visibility and more opportunities to meet people.
5. Break the ice
When meeting someone new, ask first. Be more interested in what that person has to say, rather than what you have to say. This makes you a better conversationalist and makes you “different” in a good way. Most people like to talk, but not listen. “There’s an added bonus,” says Borja. “People are more receptive to your message because they aren’t thinking about what they want to talk about. They’ve already said it!”
Conversation starters can come from anything. There’s the obvious: “What did you think of the speaker?” But sometimes you can prompt a conversation just by asking someone at the buffet table, “What’s your favorite appetizer?” “Of course, avoid politics and any other potentially polarizing topics,” says Shenker.
Keep conversations short and exit gracefully, saying something like, “I really enjoyed talking to you. We’ll keep in touch. I see a few other people here I’d like to meet before we run out of time. May I add you to my email list? I assure you I won’t spam you.”
6. Connect online
LinkedIn is the place for online business networking. Sites like meetup.com list live events and meetings you can attend too. There are groups on Facebook and Linked-In as well.
Build relationship trust and rapport by staying top of mind through social media posts. Create educational and entertaining posts that build your brand and expertise. “Don’t create controversial posts on divisive subjects such as politics or religion,” says Borja. “Even if a post starts with good intentions, it only takes one person to take your post into a downward spiral. There’s no winning in an online argument. Keep it positive and engaging.”
7. Follow up
While the gathering is still fresh in your mind, send follow-up notes and connect via LinkedIn to the people you met. Schedule meetings with A-list people. “Above all, do not sell aggressively,” says Shenker. “New business comes from relationships that build over time.”
8. Become a connector
Offer the folks you meet to connect them to others. Use social media messenger services to make introductions for people who would benefit from meeting. “This starts the ball rolling for new relationships to form, and you’ll start receiving more introductions to people beneficial to your own networking and business,” says Borja.
One networking event, conference, or other gathering is usually not a tipping point for your business and personal life. “The more ‘practice’ you get meeting new people and following up, the easier networking becomes,” Shenker says. “Evaluate your activities every quarter, and you’ll get a clear sense of what types of events and connections have been the most helpful and productive.”
10. Concentrate on quality over quantity
Says Campbell, “Stop worrying about how many people you connect with. Making fewer connections will allow you to deepen the relationships. There is not a prize for the biggest network.” DW
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a frequent contributor to DW.