Networking can be such a weird topic. It’s hard to describe the best way to do it, and that makes it even more frustrating for people trying to get the knack of doing it. There’s very few “truths” that always work, but after getting this question at a few alumni panels, I figured I owed the college students of the world a not-terrible answer.
Hard Truth #1: There is no end to networking
Networking isn’t an event, it’s a state of mind.
At its core, networking is about connecting interesting people and ideas with other people who might appreciate those people and ideas.
And there are a few things it’s not: a solicitation, an event, a business card exchange. One of the most frustrating things about a networking event are the people who go from person to person just selling and talking about themselves. I’ll say the thing we’re all too polite to say: no one cares, no one is listening, I’m not giving you a job, and I’ll for sure throw out your business card when I get home. In fact, for this reason I rarely actually go to networking events. It’s like having a sales target on your back.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t network.
The best place, I’ve found, to network is outside of these events. Talk to people at work parties who are outside of your department. Talk to people when you’re in line at Starbucks. Follow up with old employers and co-workers. In a less forced environment, more people will give you the time of day.
Pro tip for Starbucks conversations: if a person looks rushed, offer them your spot. Say something like, “It looks like you’re in kind of a rush, you’re more than welcome to cut in front of me”. People are grateful more often than not. Ask what they do. THEN introduce yourself. Start with them, and make yourself useful. It’s not fool-proof and some people can’t be bothered before a latte, but some will and those people are the ones you’re after.
Hard Truth #2: Networking doesn’t work if you don’t follow up
So you had a conversation, exchanged info, or maybe you found them on LinkedIn…great! Now do something about it.
Pro tip for LinkedIn: Only connect via desktop. Mobile fills in that awful “I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn” line, and I delete 99% of those requests. As in, unless we’re old roommates, I’m ignoring it. It takes legit two seconds and makes a world of difference.
Now for the follow up. Say something interesting, and give them a reason to continue talking to you. “It was nice to meet you at the event today” is boring and forgettable. Mention what you talked about, share an article that you think they would enjoy. Establish a personal connection and periodically message them. This is not a one-time follow up. Networks take time to build. Try to not message people for something need-based for a while. Build a relationship, offer your services, ask what they need [not in the first message, however].
Soft Tip #1: Be really good at one thing, and be known for that thing
My specialty is, and has always been social media. Some people advise against specializing early, but I’m very pro-specialization. It helps you focus your personal development, and become well acquainted with one particular aspect of your industry. When someone needs a go-to for your speciality, your goal is to have branded yourself so you’re that person. Offer to help people who are struggling in your specialty. Speak at trainings. Pick up slack for your internship boss so you can learn some new skills. Use free training tools to develop skills you don’t have. Connect with other alumni. Go to industry nights [not to network, but to learn what other people are doing]. Get really good at your job. Really good. Work hard to be the best at it. Even if your career doesn’t pan out as you planned it, doors open when you’re the go-to.
Soft Tip #2: Make your personality work for you
Networking is about being who you are, which sounds really new-age and stupid, but it’s true. I’m kind of a weird person. I talk with my hands too much, I make bug eyes when I’m excited and I can be really excitable and loud. But that’s me, and the people in my circle [network or otherwise] come to embrace those things about me. So when I tell you that it’s okay to wok with your weirdness, it comes from someone who does it on the daily.
Being buttoned up for me doesn’t work. It comes off as disingenuous and fake. Being reserved makes me seem uninterested. Your network should be people you would actually want to associate with IRL, not just people who control jobs, money or other “stuff” you’re looking for, because networking isn’t about any of that. [Interesting people and things, remember?] Who you are, should be who you really are so they can appreciate that person. You can be professional and still be yourself, and part of learning how to network is learning how to do that. If you’re more reserved, that’s okay. Just learn how to open a conversation, ask some questions, and people will think you’re a great listener. You don’t have to be somebody you’re not.
Real Talk #1: You can do everything right, and some people will still not return a message, or will act like they’re “above” you
Not everyone is friendly. Not everyone wants to meet new people and learn about new things. From time to time you’ll meet these people at events, IRL, at Starbucks [I’m there a lot], and basically anywhere. Be a better person when you get a snub. Some people will try to sound really important and busy, and it’s just best to move on from those people. Meet the interesting people around you. Care about them.
Pro connection tip: Find someone you admire and reach out to them on Twitter to share something you think they would like. Make it personal–they might respond, they might not. If they do, it’s a cool in-road and can be a confidence boost to get a tweet back. [Weird fact, I take a screen shot of every brand or pseudo-celebrity that tweets me back. I like seeing the people behind a brand, and it makes me happy when those people respond].
Real Talk #2: The people within your organization probably already know the people you want to know
Sometimes it’s as simple as asking “Hey NAME, I’m looking to learn more about THIS THING. Do you know anyone I can reach out to that does it?” Find a respected [read: connected] person in your organization and have lunch with them. For funsies. Not because you want anything.
Real Talk #3: Network when you don’t need anything
This one toes the line between hard truth and real talk. But this one is for sure a tried and true. When you need something, you’re prone to say something needy and too soon. Network because you want to, not because you need to. Inevitably, we’ll all need our network at some point, but the key is to have one before you need one. Start young, start early and always follow up.
Again, these tips are not 100% fool proof, and I’m not a networking expert [social media, remember?], but they’ve been useful to me! I’m happy to field questions via Twitter–or better, share your tips with me!