Besides “public speaking,” is there any other term in the business world that fills people with as much dread and trepidation?
We have all been a networking event where we meet someone for the first time, get a business card, and within minutes are hearing a pitch about this great new idea they have if they only had some money to fund it. Or meeting someone who is at a networking happy hour but had a little too much to drink and is now talking bad about their employer.
Years ago, when I first started working for myself, I realized I needed to “network.” I read all these guides about how to be a good networker. How to meet people, firm handshakes, crisp business cards, smile, … so many instructions I felt like a robot.
You see, I'm not an extrovert. I enjoy a good party but I need quiet breaks and I can't really talk about anything all the time forever (my wife sure can and I love her for it!). But over the years, I've developed my ability to network and I'll distill the most important points below.
Networking in a Nutshell
When I read all those tips on how to meet people, firm handshakes, blah blah — it made my head spin. It was too much.
Let me distill all the networking advice into a few short points.
Remember this one guiding principle – People do business with people they like.
Be that person and everything else will work itself out. You don't need to remember a million rules as long as you remember that guiding principle.
Next, be helpful. Try to be as helpful as you can with no expectation of return. If you help others, if you put yourself out there, it will come back to you ten-fold. It might not be tomorrow, the next week, or next year — but it always comes back to you.
Be likable and be helpful (good life lessons too!).
After that, the rest is academic.
Here are the top networking tips I know:
Like interviewing tips, mindset is everything.
- No one is born good at networking. If you aren't an extrovert and/or aren't comfortable talking to complete strangers, it can be very difficult. I know because this is exactly what I dealt with. But the more you put yourself into new situations, the more your body and brain adapt until others think you're comfortable… even if you aren't.
- Be yourself. Seriously, don't try to be whatever it is you think is the perfect networking person. Just be yourself. If you're quiet, that's fine. If you're shy, also fine. There are many different types of people in this world and we need them all, so be your perfect you.
- Don't think of it as networking, think of it as meeting people. This is what gets in most people's heads the most often. They think that because they're networking they need to do things differently – you don't! You're just meeting new people! The pretense is different (a networking event vs. a happy hour) but the mechanics are the exact same.
- Don't worry about being “bad.” (no one remembers) People will remember if something bad happened, but people won't remember conversations that felt awkward. It's not like a bad date, which people talk about all the time, it's a bad conversation and people will forget it very quickly.
- You don't collect friends, don't collect “connections.” If you're used to collecting skills on a resume, you might be tempted to try to collect “connections.” Don't! It's not about how many people you know, it's about knowing the right people and building genuine connections with them.
- Don't expect anything. You'll meet lots of people, you'll even help some of them, but never do something because you expect to be “repaid the favor.” Not everyone will repay the favor and if you let that discourage you, it'll hurt you in the long run. Meet people, help them, expect nothing in return and you will always be delighted.
- Go outside your area of expertise. If you're a snowboarder, you don't just hang out with snowboarders right? The same goes for your major, your career, or whatever else you associate with your work. Try to network with folks outside your core area of expertise and not limit yourself.
- Don't worry about saying the wrong thing. Worry about asking the right questions and listening – since you will be doing most of the reaching out, you want to try to learn as much as you can and not be focused on “showing off” how great you are.
I interviewed the University of Buffalo's Associate Professor of Organization and Human Resources, Dr. Kate Bezrukova, about the most important thing to keep in mind while networking. At the end of the day, mindset has a lot to do with how well you're able to build a network.
People often don’t realize that the smallest connection you make with people can pay off in the future.
And it does not have to be their immediate work circle.
We all have multiple social circles through our children and family members, interest groups – do not neglect those. You never know.
People underestimate the value of a few words.
Even simple ‘hello’ can establish that connection in your work circle or outside of it.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to getting better at anything is to practice. How do you practice meeting people? By meeting more people!
- Practice in low stakes environments. Try to find non-work related social gatherings and networking events as a way to practice meeting new people without the pressure of having to not screw it up.
- Practice is really low stakes environments. Like in line at Starbucks or the grocery store. Just start talking to people.
- Reach out to one person a day. Start with low stakes, then make it higher stakes but get in the habit of contacting at least one person a day. In the beginning, maybe it's the person in line behind you at the grocery store. Later on, it's an alumni you respect in your field or an entrepreneur doing work you really admire. By making this a habit, you get more comfortable with it.
Before an Event
- Seek out professional groups. Look for professional groups that meet up in your geographic area. They can be the industry you're currently in, an industry you want to be in, or just an affinity group like college alumni or fans of XYZ.
- Join an Alumni group. This is an example of an affinity group but alumni groups are great because you already have a huge base of common topics to talk about and reminisce.
- Identify why you are going to this networking event. What are your goals and objectives to making this time and money expenditure a success? You will need to know this to evaluate whether or not you'll return the next time it's taking place. The answer doesn't need to be quantitative but you need to have an idea before you go so you can objectively decide afterwards whether you want to return.
- Identify a handful of people to meet. Many networking events, especially conferences, will include a list of attendees. Use that list to identify a handful of people that you hope to meet and make a meaningful connection with.
- Reach out to those folks ahead of the event. For those folks with contact information, email them to “break the ice.” If it's a multi-day event with a lot of activity, versus a single day event or multi-hour event in one room, you can even try to schedule a 15-30 minute meeting ahead of time to make sure you meet that person.
- Research the individual you want to meet. Between Facebook and Linkedin, you can learn a lot about someone's interests and hobbies and see if there is any overlap. It can give you something common to talk about.
- Clean up your social media. Just like you'll research other people, they'll do the same for you. Make sure your profiles are in professional shape, especially LinkedIn.
- Volunteer to organize an event. If you are completely green and new, you can always volunteer to help organize events. When Tim Ferriss first moved to San Francisco, he offered to help organize speakers
At an Event
- Do not get drunk. You're working, not socializing. You can get drunk with your friends, remember above all else that this is work.
- Find open groups. If a group of people seem engrossed in conversation and you don't know anyone, it's often not a great idea to try to enter that group. Look for a group that seems loosely organized in a circle and just walk up to someone in it and say hi.
- Talk to organizers. If the organizers don't look too busy, say hello to them first. If they're swamped, let them do their thing. Otherwise, say hello, thank them for organizing the event, and ask them if there's someone there you should definitely meet. Organizers want people to get the most out of networking events so they will help if they can.
- Don't pitch anyone. No one likes hearing a pitch within minutes of meeting you, save that for following up.
- Don't get drunk! It's worth mentioning twice. 🙂
In a Conversation
The hardest part about networking are the conversations, especially if you're an introvert.
- Just say hi. Don't overthink it, don't have trivia questions, just introduce yourself and say hello. Talk about something stupid like the weather or the drive. Think of it like conversation warm-up, if you start with some deep probing philosophical question the other person will think you're a weirdo because you're being a weirdo.
- Try to find a common interest. It gives you something to talk about and gives you a nice easy way to remember that person. Plus it's fun to discover that the other person also did fencing in high school (anyone? anyone?).
- Remember their name! Do whatever tricks you need to (repeating it, using a mnemonic, etc.) but remembering the name is important. I personally try to use their name multiple times in a conversation.
- Don't name drop. As in, don't mention that you know someone, met someone, once shared an elevator with someone; for the sole purpose of puffing up your resume. If, however, there's a chance you and the other person have a mutual acquaintance or some other connection, that's OK.
- Ask them questions. Not like an interrogator, but like someone who is really interested in learning more about people. Everyone is an expert or passionate at something and I like to ask questions to discover what that something is. It could be work related, it could be travel, it could be a hobby, whatever.
- Be positive. No one likes a complainer, especially if they just met you! Even if you've had a shared negative experience, like a long line to get in, find something else to talk about. Even if mutual commiseration seems easy, resist the temptation.
- Don't interrupt. People don't always remember what you say but they will remember how you made them feel. Being interrupted never feels good.
- Learn how to make a graceful exit. It doesn't have to be complicated, but learn something like — “It was nice to meet you, do you have a card so that I can reach you later? I'm going to take a break/get more coffee/etc.” Get a card, shake a hand, thank them and start walking.
- Write notes on the back of the business card. You will not remember some facts in an hour, so write them on the back of the card. Anything that will ensure you remember the person, the context, and the conversation.
After an Event
This is nearly as important as the event itself. Get this wrong and you might as well not gone in the first place.
- Follow up in about a week. If it's a single day event, follow up a week later. If it's a multi-day event, follow up a week after the final day. Just send the person an email, saying how nice it was to meet, mention something from the conversation, and say how you look forward to keeping in touch. You know who to follow up on because you have their business card or you kept a list.
- Get in the habit of introducing people (if it makes sense and with permission!). You want to try to be a connector when it makes sense. If someone is looking for someone who does X and you know someone, try to connect them. But don't connect for the sake of connecting and always ask both parties separately and before making the introduction.
- Provide as much value as you can. As you look to nurture and build on the relationship, you want to provide as much value as you can. As mentioned earlier, don't think about if you'll get repaid, just provide value because in the rare event you do need a favor, the ones you've helped are far more likely to help you in return.
- If you do need a favor, remember to ask for permission first. If you need a favor or introduction, remember to ask for permission before continuing. For example, if you want to share an idea with someone, you might say “Hi Jim, I have this idea about muckity-muck that I'd love to run by you, is that OK?” — 99% of the time Jim will say OK, go ahead. 1% of the time Jim will want to talk about it later or not at all, be sure to ask so you aren't wasting Jim's time if he's that 1% at the moment.
At a Conference
If you are at a multi-day conference with sessions, meals, and night time events… do this.
- Rarely will this many “relevant” people be in one place for the same reason – take advantage. You don't have the wonder or worry if the person you're talking to will eventually be some kind of business contact (not something you should be thinking anyway, but I get some people do and that's OK)… everyone could be. Which means you're being very efficient with your time as long as you take advantage of it. Talk to everyone.
- Stay hydrated, eat well. If you eat like garbage, get wasted every night, and don't stay hydrated… you will have a bad time. Take care of yourself.
- It's OK to take naps. Conferences can be all day and all night affairs. There is always the temptation that you should be “out there” and interacting all the time. If you're an introvert like me, it can be very tiring so it's OK to find some quiet time and duck away to recharge so you're not a zombie (it's a marathon!).
- Go to all the sessions and introduce yourself to neighbors. Sitting next to someone at a session is the best. Just say hi, introduce yourself, and ask them about themselves. You already know they're interested in the session so you can even start there..
- Never eat alone. Get your food and walk into a group, introduce yourself, and everyone else will reciprocate. Everyone's eating and chatting casually, join in, be a wallflower, whatever – you just met a whole group of people you can run into later.
- Say hello to people at every opportunity. Even if you are just walking by and just make eye contact, smile and say hi. They may remember you, they may not, but it gets your head in the right place. No one ever “rejects” a hello and smile, if that's something you're worried about. If it is, take the win because they didn't reject you! 🙂
- Definitely say hi when you're waiting in a line (like getting coffee, registering, etc.). You can do the customary “oh I'm not myself until I get coffee” thing or just talk like a regular human being, don't play with your phone.
- Don't gravitate towards your friends. You made a friend on Monday, it's now Wednesday and you're still hanging out with him or her all the time. That's great but make sure you don't fall into the trap of entering a room and just walking towards your friends. It's one of those issues of degree — you want to make a quality connection but you don't want to forsake new ones.
- Buy drinks. Who doesn't like a free drink?
- BUT DON'T GET DRUNK. Seriously.
The beginning is always the hardest. When you're still in school or just starting out because you won't know anyone and no one knows you.
As you do more events and meet more people, you will start meeting folks through warm introductions rather than cold emails and chance meetings at networking events. While this beginning period is hardest, here is when you can learn the most and develop into the professional you hope to be in relatively low stakes environment with folks who are as new and nervous as you.
What's your best networking tip?