Remember that old phrase, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” Sadly, it’s true. And you get to know people through networking.
If you’re anything like me though, the mere mention of the word networking is enough to send chills down your back. There are a million things I’d rather do than network, things like taking comprehensive standardized tests, submitting to painful medical procedures, or just generally hiding under rocks.
In today’s world though, you are usually required to interact with other human beings who can help you get what you want (and yes – vice versa). It doesn’t always have to be painful though and there are some definite ways that you can help yourself become better at networking.
In the real world, people don’t just network for the hell of it. Networking does have a purpose, and for each of us that might be different. For example, it might be establishing clients for a new business, or finding better employees or contractors.
In my case, I am a recent college grad who just moved across the country to a new city. Within my career track, jobs are often handed out first to people that the hiring official knows personally. I didn’t know a single person here within my field, so I needed to get to know people in order to get a job. No networking = no job = poverty and a lifetime of cat food dinners.
Rather than focusing on the scary word networking (cue smoke machine and creepy organ music here), focus on what you want to achieve. Networking is but a tool you can use to achieve your dreams.
Networking Tips For Introverts
That’s all great and true but what if you’re an introvert? How can you network without having an anxiety attack?
Minimize Weirdness With Private Meetings
Whenever I’m at a conference or other event with a lot of relevant people I’d like to meet, it’s like watching a bad comedy where the silly main character makes blunder after blunder, with an audience laugh track in the background constantly chuckling away.
I never know how to insert myself into the little groups of people in conversation, I can never come up with witty and intelligent questions to ask, and I always seem to be staring blankly ahead with a dumb smile on my face.
If you feel the same, does that mean that you should avoid these types of events? No! Events and conferences are great places to meet lots of relevant people concentrated in one place at one time. Regardless of whether you’re at a conference or not though, you should use a powerful networking tool: the private meeting.
By scheduling a private meeting with the person that you’re interested in meeting, you create a lot of favorable conditions for yourself. You can minimize outside distractions from other people, noises, or miscellaneous shiny things.
You can remove uncertainty and stress over who, when, and where you will meet others by setting up a dedicated appointment. And, of course, you can prepare ahead of time so that you don’t look and feel so much like a blubbering idiot.
Meet For Drinks And Appetizers
If you’re the type of person who is easily put off by the official-looking office environment or if it’s difficult to meet people during working hours, you might want to consider meeting someone for drinks and appetizers. And by “drinks,” I mean just one if you do choose to partake. This isn’t a frat party, after all.
For many people, a small amount of alcohol can be the perfect social lubricant to get good conversations going. If I have one beer, I am usually much more open and relaxed talking with people. More than one (and certainly three) beers, and I get a little too silly to be out in public in a professional context.
But often, I’ve found that that one beer does wonders for allowing me to interact more fully with my peers. I’ve received a lot of good advice over a good beer from veterans in my career path that has really helped to advance my own career.
At the same time, a restaurant/pub environment is much less intimidating. It’s a friendlier atmosphere, and nothing signals friendship between two people like breaking bread together. Unless you’re a mob boss, or a serial poisoner, that is.
Know Before You Go
The main reason I like to schedule private meetings with people is that it allows me to prepare. I’m not caught off-guard trying to think up of all kinds of conversation starters with a random stranger I know nothing about. By nailing down a set time and place to meet with the person, you can minimize the amount of unknowns in the equation and boost your confidence so that you don’t look so much like total newbie.
I like to do two things before every meeting: research the person and draft a mental list of questions. I like to know a bit about them before I go so I can find some common ground and things to talk about. For each piece of information I find out, I try and think of questions that I can ask relevant to that topic and to the reason I’m meeting them.
For example, if a person has worked at multiple agencies, how do they like their current one? What is the agency culture like? Do they do research on rats and feral swine? How did they make that switch? Are they a top-level manager or an entry-level researcher? In either case, how did they make it to that position?
Some questions are applicable to everyone I meet with. For example, what are their greatest challenges? What are their favorite parts about their job? What is the least favorite part? And, most important of all, who else do you think I should meet with?
For each meeting, I generally go in with a mental list of 10-15 questions. This isn’t an interview, so don’t bring a pre-printed form to fill out. Depending on where the conversation has been going, I will draw from this list so that there is never an awkward pause.
By preparing ahead of time, I find that I am able to be more confident in my approach. I know about this person, I know what to say, and I know what important information I need to give and get out of the interaction. I’m not afraid of awkward pauses, asking a stupid question, or appearing unknowledgeable on the topic.
Organize, Organize, Organize
Now that you’ve done all the hard work to go and meet with the person, you wouldn’t throw it all away, would you? You need a system to keep track of your networking, so you can make sure you take advantage of every opportunity to the fullest. That way, you don’t forget about any of the small but important details like the date you contacted someone, when they will have an opportunity, or how many times you accidentally called them by the wrong name (oops).
I keep track of all of these things in a networking spreadsheet. I include all of the relevant info like name, agency, job title, email, etc… Every time I contact them, I log it in the spreadsheet along with notes about whether or not they responded, what they said, and when I should contact them again.
By keeping track of correspondences, you can be more effective in your communications. You save time hunting down email addresses, what was said, when you contacted them last, etc… You can more easily space out your communications so that you’re not constantly bombarding them with emails. Plus, it’s really gratifying to see your see your network literally grow before your eyes.
What do you do if the person you’ve contacted doesn’t have any opportunities or have any time to meet right now? That’s totally fine, but you need to check back with them in the future. You’ve logged the date in your spreadsheet of course, so now just make a note about when to contact them again.
Unless people have specified when to contact them next, I usually follow up once every quarter or two. By checking in with people, you can be sure to not let these opportunities slip away, and you show tenacity. Oftentimes important people get a lot of emails from people like you wanting the same thing, but most people give up after hearing “No” once. You’re not most people, though!
Make It Happen
Networking can be a terrifying prospect, but what you should really be afraid of is not networking at all. Networking is often what separates the girls from the women (or the boys from the men) in terms of career success.
In my field, competition for jobs is intense. It’s not uncommon for hiring officials to receive hundreds of applications for a single position. The only time I’ve ever been successful in getting a job is because I either personally knew the person beforehand, or I went out of my
way to meet with them.
Networking is an under-taught skill in schools today. Book learning and experience can help you up to a point, but if everyone else has those same qualifications, a person will not choose to work with you based on those alone. Use this to your advantage and turbo-charge your career.