Networking gets a bad rap — mainly from those who don’t know how to do it. While schmoozing over drinks at a professional meet and greet can seem self-serving and shallow, it can also be extremely valuable and transformative.
Networking can introduce you to new friends in your industry, connect you with potential customers, generate referrals, or land you a new job. “Opportunities come to you because someone was thinking of you at the exact time they came across something that was relevant for you — whether it’s a job, or a deal, or an introduction, or a technology that could help your business,” explains Patrick Ewers, an early LinkedIn director and relationship-building expert.
It all depends on you. Unfortunately, most people aren’t gifted with the ability to capture and hold the attention of strangers, which is why networking can often feel clumsy and awkward. If you’re one of the many professionals who find themselves more comfortable at a table in the back than in the middle of a crowd, these tips are for you.
1. Introduce yourself as you.
Given the potential benefits, being in a networking situation can feel a little pressure-packed. You’ve likely read numerous articles about personal branding, selling yourself, and crafting your elevator pitch. The advice spinning around inside of your head can cause you to focus too much on presenting yourself in a specific way. Instead, relax and introduce yourself as you.
Even better, show a willingness to be vulnerable by sharing personal stories that demonstrate your interests and abilities. The best conversations occur when people are comfortable and open, so keep your tone and demeanor casual. Kat Krieger, former head of marketing at Joyride Coffee Distributors, has found that effective networking is about sharing rather than selling. She observes: “We all have that one line or story about what we love about what we do and what our company does. Make your intro spiel personal. People will see you are genuine, and it will resonate.” Before your next networking event, make a list of three things you could talk about endlessly. If the conversation slows down, steer it toward something on your list. This will leave you feeling prepared while keeping you authentic.
2. Bring value to the table.
Many people assume that networking is all about extracting value from others: selling your services, landing a new job, etc. While networking can lead to personal gains in the long run, the act of networking is actually about the opposite: giving. To succeed at networking, you need to provide value to those you meet. You likely have a lot to offer, whether you know it or not. When you meet someone new, ask questions that might reveal needs or challenges you could help them overcome.
You can bring value in a multitude of ways: share how you handled a similar experience at work, help connect people, mention an industry resource you’ve found beneficial, or simply make yourself available. “By providing value to everyone around you, you’ll inevitably rise,” says Hope Horner, founder and CEO of on-demand video production company Lemonlight. “Center your conversations on how your offerings can improve people’s lives or businesses. And follow that path.” By being helpful, you’ll quickly become someone that other people want to help.
3. Follow through by following up.
Even the best conversations will become a distant memory if you let them. So don’t. If you felt like you clicked with someone who might be able to help you grow professionally or vice versa, follow up with them — and don’t wait.
Send an email or handwritten note within 24 hours of meeting the person. Your note should mention something specific about the conversation you had and offer to help in some way or connect again in the future. Your timely follow-up will help the individual more clearly recall your conversation. You may not get a response from everyone you reach out to, but don’t give up. It’s very likely that the people you want to connect with have a long list of their own priorities. They may want to stay in touch with you, but the timing has to be right. Be patient.
4. Practice makes perfect.
Networking is a skill, and like any skill, it takes practice to master. You have to put the time in, but don’t expect to get better by simply attending more networking meetings or talking to more people. Effective practice requires you to come up with new ideas and use old information in new ways. Identify those aspects of networking that are the most challenging for you, and start working on solutions.
Your goal should be to make networking fun and natural. If you struggle with the latter, you might try meditating before meeting new people, bringing a companion to events, or employing other stress-reducing tactics. Also, don’t forget about the relationships you already have. Practice having networking conversations with people who are already in your circle, and you’ll strengthen both your conversational skills and those relationships.
There’s a reason most people would rather keep to themselves than approach a stranger. Meeting new people can feel really … well, weird. But just remember, even the best networkers felt uncomfortable at their first professional meetup. Put yourself out there, and that discomfort will soon fade. Your future self will thank you.