The expert's guide to networking
I get it, networking can be awkward. Love it or hate it, networking is critical no matter what your job is, or what stage of your career you are at. But even when you understand the importance of networking, it doesn’t make walking into a room full of strangers any easier!
While I love meeting new people, sometimes I walk into an event and it takes all my strength not to walk straight back out. Networking is not always easy! However, when I first started thinking about changing careers, I knew that learning to love (or at least appreciate!) networking would be my ticket to getting a new job. And I was right.
Over the last year I've been to hundreds of networking events, and you know what? It's not all that bad!
Are you ready to starting networking? Here’s my guide to networking success.
Work out your networking pre-game
Before you start signing up to a long list of events, it’s a good idea to have a think about your goals and priorities to ensure that you get the most out of your efforts.
Consider going to events alone. While heading out without a safety net of friends and colleagues can be intimidating, it allows you to be more flexible at the event, and network with the people you want to meet.
Awhile back, I asked people for their best networking tips. Priya Chandra hit the nail on the head when she said don't think about it as networking, think about it as relationship building. Priya makes a great point: the word networking has developed negative connotations, and if the thought of networking makes you feel queasy, stop "networking" and start building relationships. Changing the way you view an event or situation can be hugely powerful.
Resist the urge to show up late and sneak into the back of the room. This can be tempting if you are going alone, but if you are late, chances are everyone else will have already settled into conversation. This will just make you feel more awkward as you desperately try and find a friendly face.
Being a little bit early means that you have more control over who you talk to, and also takes the pressure of going up to groups of people who are already deep in conversation. Sneak out the work fire escape if you have to (not that I would do this, right?!). There's no fashionably late to networking events.
Get your attitude right
Check your attitude. If I’m feeling tired or like I need some down time, networking events are never enjoyable. Try and summon some positive vibes (even if you are having a crazy day at work and had to escape via the fire escape!).
Remember that you want to connect with people, not positions. Don’t put too much pressure to go into a networking event to meet X person in Y role at Z company. The whole event you will be mentally checking the time, worrying about meeting the right person, which will be obvious to everyone around you.
Remember: you are going into the event with to meet people, have an interesting conversation, and hopefully make some new connections. You are not going to go into an event to meet a CEO who will instantly offer you a fantastic new job. It's all about relationship building, right?
Look outside your own industry… and comfort zone
At some of the best networking events I have been to I was the odd one out. It was great, because I learned heaps, met some interesting people and was the extra bit memorable because I was that little bit different. Own your differences and you will be surprised how much you learn.
This is another thing I've chatted about with Damon Klotz, who used networking (online and offline) to create an awesome career before he turned 25! You can check out my interview with Damon here.
Attending events outside your industry is also a great way to remove any industry jargon you have in your head about your work, and strip it back to the skills that you have. People in other industries probably won't care if you worked on X case that changed a piece of law, so think about the actions that you take in your day to day life, and tell your story in a relatable way. (hint: this can also a great skill for interviews!) You never know what advice or help a new connection in a different industry can offer.
Nail your elevator pitch (in advance)
Be able to clearly explain who you are, what you do and why before you enter the room. It's inevitable that someone will ask you the dreaded "so, what do you do?" question, so make sure you have a good response that starts conversations, and keeps the ball rolling.
Disclaimer: ditch anything that sounds too salesy and focus on building genuine connections. Remember, don't include industry jargon that means nothing to the rest of the world!
It’s important to think about why you are attending the particular event and what you have to offer. Understanding your personal brand, and your strengths and weaknesses is a great skill to have. Take the time before your next networking event to ask:
- Who are you?
- What do you do?
- Why do you do it?
- What do you want to do?
Then, when someone asks you what you do, you've got a great foundation to build upon. Also think about ways that you can round off your elevator pitch with what you can do for that particular person.
Listen to what people have to say
Sometimes when I’m stressed or uncomfortable I am tempted to just blurt stuff out to fill in awkward silences. It's not good!
Try to take a step back, and force other people to talk about themselves, what they do, and what their passions are. Another great tip is to focus on how you can help people, sharing what you can “bring to the table” will help find stories of mutual interest. Which brings me to my next point...
Focus on sharing knowledge
Sharing your knowledge as well is a great way to connect authentically.
Before I started work as a lawyer, I wouldn’t think twice about heading to a networking event and chatting away to strangers. However, once I started work, my thoughts on networking changed quickly. No one wanted to talk to the most junior person in the room, and conversations always centered around who had worked on which case and mutual connections in the legal world (who I had never heard of).
I was reading a post by Fiona Craig awhile back where she shared a similar experience. After a career in the law and recruiting, she was shocked at how kind and generous people are: the complete opposite to her previous experiences.
That made me realise how cynical and selfish I had become, trapped into believing that helping others would somehow hold me back, rather than propel me forward.
Fiona’s realisation is spot on: don’t let a competitive industry ruin your networking experience. Share your knowledge and expertise. Would you rather be the smug person who clearly knows something but isn’t letting on about it, or the person who has a considered opinion and insight into a topic? I know who I would rather be.
Remember that it is a long-term game
Don’t go to a networking event looking for your next job or client. In addition to being blatantly obvious to the savvy networker, unless you are a born salesperson you will probably feel uncomfortable and awkward.
While it is important to move on if you aren’t making a proper connection with the people that you first meet, don’t put pressure on yourself to meet every single person in the room. Focus on making solid connections - this is much more worthwhile than superficially meeting everyone in the room. Quality trumps quantity!
What's your networking secret? Comment below, I'd love to add it to my list!