Image from Andy Lamb
Networking is important. It just is. But it can also be painful. There are LOADS of tips out there aimed at making it slightly less painful. Each one of those tips will be great for someone, but not necessarily everyone.
The below networking tips have helped me, and so hopefully they’ll also help people who are a bit like me. But are you like me? Do you feel social awkwardness acutely and do everything in your power to avoid it? Do you enjoy spending time with humans, but also hate meeting new ones? Do you cringe at the thought of entering a room packed with strangers with the aim of ‘selling yourself’? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, these tips may ease your pain.
1) Have a purpose
Have a reason for being somewhere that isn’t simply ‘networking’. There’s nothing I find more excruciatingly awkward than milling about with a glass of wine surrounded by people I don’t know. I just end up leaving early. But if I’m actually doing something, then I find it much easier to talk to strangers, get to know people, and pick up useful contacts.
You could see this as a ‘planned happenstance’ approach to networking – put yourself out there, get involved with things, and the networking is likely to just happen without you really noticing. For me, this has meant signing up for a course where I knew I’d meet people in a certain sector, or volunteering at relevant events. Sometimes these events have included a ‘networking session’, which always felt far less awkward if I’d been part of the team that arranged it!
2) Latch on to a good networker
Like it or not, it’s not always possible to ‘have a purpose’. Sometimes attending actual networking events is part of life. And it can yield results. I find networking events more productive and less terrible if I attend with a natural-born networker. The intense schmoozing might be cringey at times, but the good networker will ensure they (and, because you are together, also you) talk to lots of key people, and their social skills should make the affair less awkward for everyone.
3) Don’t bring the whole gang
While attending a networking session or signing up for a course with one other person (hopefully a fantastic networker – see tip 2) can give you the confidence to talk to new people, bringing a big group along is likely to be counterproductive. Enjoying complimentary drinks with friends at conferences or networking sessions is fabulous in its own way, but you probably won’t get much networking done!
4) Be curious
Networking events seem to bring a pressure to be interesting. But it’s better (and easier) to concentrate on being interested. Sure, you should try to swot up on relevant topics and issues to do with your particular sector/company of interest, and it’s sensible to have a short elevator pitch about yourself prepared. But in reality, most people quite like to talk about themselves, and they like people who let them do it. So if you ask lots of questions and seem genuinely engaged you’re likely to build rapport, and in turn networks.
5) Don’t expect too much
…or at least not too much too soon. Networking is great for your career. But if you go into each networking event expecting a promotion, you’ll be often disappointed. And if you harass everyone you meet for a new job, you’ll be often avoided.
Image from Sean MacEntee
Asking questions that people can easily answer (see above) is a good start. If you come away from an event having learned about someone’s career path, or heard about what it’s like to work in a particular company, then you’ve acquired valuable information you can use in your career thinking and applications. And remember networking can be a long game, so even if it might not be immediately obvious how someone can help you (or how you might help them!), building your networks is likely to pay off in the end.
6) Follow up
If you meet someone at an event, try to follow the link up within a week. I have a friend who likes to send a small gift to new contacts. Although it works wonderfully well for her (it’s how she and I became friends), most people won’t pull it off without seeming creepy. A brief email or LinkedIn request should suffice. It can be nice to remind them of the conversation you had, and perhaps even send them a link to something you think they might find interesting. This keeps the contact warm, increasing the chances that they’ll remember and think well of you, and decreasing the chances that you’ll feel awkward and rude when you contact them in the future.