For some lucky individuals, the talent for networking comes naturally. For most other people, the process of meeting strangers and instantly connecting with them (in a setting where there's pressure to do just that) is daunting. So for those of us who are not naturally inclined to network, what's the point?
Networking gets a bad rap because of how it can make us feel while doing it. To some it feels self-serving, while others worry about what kind of impression they're making. It becomes difficult to listen to and engage with other people when these creeping doubts about our own behaviors sink in.
Here are 6 useful tips for getting out of your own way when it comes to networking.
1. Just Do It. But pick the right events.
There's a classic networking conversation that goes something like this:
You: What do you do?
Them: I'm a civil engineer. And you?
You: I'm a playwright.
When you meet someone and have no idea what to talk about, you may be at the wrong networking event. No matter the event, there should be a natural link between you and the other guests that you can use as a conversation starter.
If you're unsure where to start, ask colleagues what groups they're a part of or search for some industry-specific meetups in your city. Especially when you're new to networking, don't make the process any harder than it needs to be by attending the wrong events. The more specific the event is to you and your industry or interests, the more you will have to talk about with the other attendees.
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2. Look at the list ahead of time.
If you're attending an event that publishes a list of attendees, do some reconnaissance and look at the list ahead of time. Is there anyone that you recognize? Or anyone whose work you admire?
When you get there, make a point to introduce yourself and use what you already know about them as a jumping-off point. Did they write an article recently that you enjoyed? Bring it up. And if it's a large conference or event, don't be afraid to reach out before the event.
3. Don't overthink the conversation.
Networking sounds intimidating because it puts added pressure on your conversation skills. Everyone in the room wants to come off as intelligent and charming, and everyone has different tactics for doing it. As cliche as it sounds, be yourself.
If you're stuck for what to talk about, lean on what you have in common. How are they dealing with a certain challenge facing the industry? What kind of management techniques do they employ?
Remember also that focusing too heavily on your side of the conversation likely means you aren't really listening to the other person. A lasting connection won't happen if you forget everything they said as soon as you leave the room.
4. If a conversation is going great, stay put.
It can be overwhelming to think about networking in the same way that we think about speed dating. But unlike speed dating, you don't have to meet everyone or give everyone equal time.
If you're having a great conversation with someone, don't cut it off so that you can make the rounds again. Think about the lasting connection and follow the natural ebb and flow of the conversation. When the conversation slows, move on or invite someone new into the discussion.
5. When you are in a position to offer value to each other, conversation will come naturally.
There are no shortage of articles out there focusing on how to pitch yourself at networking events or how to offer value to other people. In many cases, the end goal of networking appears to be an instant value swap. What can they offer me? And what can I offer them in return?
In truth, all the best partnerships follow these guidelines, but don't rush the value portion of the conversation. If there's a natural link between your two businesses or industries, that means there's room for an ongoing conversation.
6. Don't let them go.
Once outside the walls of a networking event, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the conversation going. Everyday life starts to get in the way, and over time we forget. But when it comes time to call on your network for a big ask -- a product launch, a new initiative, a call for investors, etc. -- you can't expect people that you haven't spoken to in years to jump at the opportunity to support you.
Using a system like Contactually to manage your network and to remind you when you haven't spoken to certain people lately can be a huge help. Keep detailed notes on your conversations and ask about their personal lives. If you see articles that remind you of past conversations with that person, send them over. Really engage with the people you meet, and you'll find that your connections will become much more meaningful.
With these tips in hand, you will be ready to tackle your next networking event. You may even learn to like it.