For many, networking conjures up images of borrowing a roommate’s suit and jockeying in line to shake hands at a recruiting even until they land an interview. Luckily, beyond college, most networking is much more organic and consists of events centered around common interests. Reasons for attending affairs range from a desire to learn more about a topic to finding jobs to making personal and professional connections. While the mixed objectives can reduce the stress level, the relaxed nature also makes it easy to fail at one’s objectives. To get the most out of such events, you may need to step up your networking game. Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way that help keep networking effective but also natural.
If you’re looking for more tips on networking, I recommend Nicolas Boothman’s “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less“.
- Have an “ask.” I have to say, I’m thrown when someone is in a networking setting and, when prompted for their “ask”, they say “I really don’t know” or “I don’t need anything”. Really? I’d understand this if you’re endlessly wealthy and life’s a fairy tale. But, even retired billionaires have “asks” for their philanthropies. So why shouldn’t you request help or referrals or advice? Even if your “ask” is not an immediate need, you should ask now as it often takes time to make connections and cultivate relationships. Additionally, you may be well served having simple networking requests as some studies suggests that asking for small favors makes people more likely to do big favors for you down the line. Common networking “asks” include requesting advice or connections to those who can provide guidance or referrals for a certain profile of jobs / employees / investors, etc.
- Have a few tag lines. You should be able to explain what you do in a succinct manner (15 seconds or less). Try having two or more – one to which anyone can react and another that industry colleagues will understand.
Example: someone who does supply chain and logistics management at a food company may say the following to different audiences:
Non-industry audience: I make sure that right products get to our customers on time and do so while constantly lowering costs and increasing efficiency.
Industry audience: I am the Chief Supply Chain and Shipping Manager for a major consumer packaged good company
- Get relevant. Do a little homework before you go. Check the group’s social media, the latest news in the industry, etc. – this will help you avoid silly faux pas and give you small talk fodder. If you have time, look up folks on the speaker and guest list on LinkedIn (in privacy mode, of course) – this will help you figure out with whom you need to connect.
- Share your playbook with friends. Friends are great for helping to identify and introduce you to potential contacts. My friends and I will meet up before hand or, if they are straggling in, step aside to the bar or to the coat rack for a quick chat about what we need out of a given event. If you don’t have friends at the event, make some networking allies on the spot.
Example: I often say the following to create an ally (and to subtly being my exit from a conversation): “As I move about the room, are there people to whom I should refer you? <Pause for response> Great. I’ll be sure to remember that. I’m looking for folks who can help me with <Insert “ask”>.”
- Get your ask in early. When your networking, it’s okay to be somewhat blunt – people know that this is a networking event. I’m a big fan of putting a little bit of my ask in my tagline as it helps direct the conversation and, should the conversation go awry, I got in my ask.
Example: “I work in investment banking and I’m thinking about moving into financial strategy roles. I’m here to connect with those who can tell me about their experience and opportunities in corporate and startup finance roles.”
- Avoid discounting. Looks can be deceiving – they don’t tell you what someone does or who they know – so give everyone a chance. In fact, it’s often the person who does not fit the “type” that also is a mover and shaker within the industry.
My favorite example: I attended an economics conference during which an older lady repeatedly tried to make small talk with my male coworkers. They did not engage as they were on the hunt for economic strategist positions and looking to speak with those who looked the part – in other words, any guy in a $2,000 suit. My female coworker and I decided to chat with the woman and, guess what? She turned out to be THE founder of a LEGENDARY company in the field. We had a great conversation, plus she offered us access to her network and a ride crosstown. I guess my male counterparts missed out… 🙂
- Respect (and maybe even praise) others. It goes with out saying that people don’t like being put down or put on the spot (especially if something is negative). Nonetheless, I’ve met quite a few people who seem to think that the point of networking is to prove they are witty by saying /asking record-screeching, squirm-in-your-seat things. If this isn’t awkward enough, it often gets more uncomfortable if the provoker has made incorrect assumptions. Of course, this is not to say you should censor yourself or curtail the conversation – just try putting a spin on things to take the pressure off of your counterparts.
Examples: Here are a few ways to spin questions / reactions:
Company is in trouble
No: “I heard / read terrible news about your company and clearly it’s going to fail. Don’t you think so?”
Yes: “This is an interesting time in that industry. How do you and your colleagues feel?”
Crazy startup idea
No: “Your startup idea will never work. Let me tell you all of the reasons why…”
Yes: “Can you tell me about how you’re tackling the challenge of <Insert one of the reasons you think the idea may not succeed> ?”
- Be in the moment. People know when you’ve zoned out, are looking for someone else or are staring at your phone. It makes them feel unimportant and a great way to make sure that they see you in a negative light. Need help staying engage? “How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less“suggests that you say to yourself at the beginning of a conversation “this is the most important and interesting person in the room” and as they talk “what they said is interesting and offers many insights”.
- Know when to exit a conversation. This is networking, not the Algonquin Round Table; exchange a few pleasantries and move on.
Example: A great way to signal the end of a conversation is to ask for your counterparts contact information: “It was great speaking with you. Do you have a card?”
- Connect on LinkedIn if you had a meaningful exchange. You should feel comfortable asking anyone with whom you’re connected to put you in contact with someone in their network and vice versa.
- Followup on asks. Honestly, we’re all busy and some things – like doing a referral – easily fall to the wayside. If you haven’t heard back from someone, try a polite followup email 1-2 weeks later.
- Follow through / be helpful. You’ve heard it before: “Do what you say you’re going to do”, “networking is a two way street”, “what comes around, goes around” and “pay it forward”. It’s true, so start wracking up your karma points. If that doesn’t sway you, know that through the challenges associated with helping others, you’ll see get better at asking for help as you’ll be better able to construct requests and identify opportunities.
- Selectively set up calls or coffees. We all have limited time, so be smart with it. Consider followup conversations with those whom 1) you have an immediate ask or would like an informational interview, 2) you’d like to foster a long-term relationship; I’ve met some of my best friends and allies through networking, and 3) you could add value (we all should give back). The choice to do a phone call vs coffee is based on the type of relationship you’d like to build as well as scheduling constraints.