I’ve spoken with many young professionals who say ‘networking’s just not my thing’, or ‘I don’t like the idea of networking at all’. And up until a few months ago, you would catch me saying the same thing: ‘I don’t like networking – it feels so self-serving, selling yourself so blatantly.” But as it’s International Networking Week, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to share some strategies for ignoring those limiting boundaries and rocking out with new friends.
I’m an introvert 90% of the time – in fact, I’m an editor by trade – and I find it infinitely more comfortable to communicate through the written word than I do verbally. And this is in no way uncommon – I know of IT company CEOs who became CEOs because they are amazing programmers, and they find the networking/public face of the company aspect of their position insurmountably daunting. So what changed for me? Why do I feel I have the right to tell you how to start networking and start enjoying it?
I actually made an amazing friend for whom ‘networking’ is second nature. She loves meeting new people, and even in a business situation the connection is personal. And that, I realized, is the key. Networking is personal. In fact, perhaps we should stop using the word ‘networking’, and get rid of all the negative connotations that come with it, and start using something more accurate like ‘communicating’, ‘relating’, or simply ‘making new friends’.
So, networking is personal.
Once I realized this, I also noticed that I needed to improve my skills when I’m meeting people for the first time. When I listened to myself speaking, I could hear that sometimes what was coming out of my mouth wasn’t really matching the message I was trying to convey. It was being compromised by my nerves or discomfort.
This I approached in the manner that suited my natural introversion – I read up on it! If you’re not such a reader, there are plenty of other avenues for learning, such as Toastmasters, community classes and even Google. One book – The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine – provided strategies for managing my nerves, for finding appropriate questions and responses, and for navigating ‘networking’ situations. Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi inspired me to start actively seeking out opportunities to meet people, to engineer my own opportunities in day-to-day situations, and how to make the connections genuine and enduring. The first book was like a survival guide for an uninhabited tropical island, while the second was a travel brochure for the same island – together I could see both the threats and the opportunities.
Networking takes skills – and opportunities!
So I then had a range of tools at my disposal and a bit of inspiration, so the next step was to find opportunities to put them into practice. For this I exploited another weapon in the networking arsenal – social networking (it even has the word ‘networking’ in it! What a giveaway!). Through Facebook and LinkedIn, I identified events I could attend, making sure that they were events that would interest me – because even if I found my courage failed me, I could still come away having learnt something new. And by choosing events within my area of expertise, I wouldn’t feel the nerves that creep up when completely out of my comfort zone. The first few situations were still very challenging as it still wasn’t something I was comfortable with. But with practice, it became easier and easier. I knew what to say to break into a conversation without breaking the conversation completely, I could predict what questions I could expect to answer, and what questions I should ask.
Practice makes perfect.
Each time I go to an event I come away thinking ‘I’ll have to remember to do this or that next time’ – it’s an ongoing learning process. As you become more experienced you’ll indentify the habits and plans that work best for you and each event will be less threatening than the previous. In the meantime, here are some tips that I’ve found hold true time and time again. Please leave comments if there are any others you would like me to include!
Tips for starters:
- Be prepared!
- Do some quick research on the other attendees – A quick check of the RSVP list on LinkedIn or Facebook will help you identify if there’s anyone in particular you want to meet and why. You don’t want to come across all crazy stalker-like, but knowing which direction to steer the conversation can help it flow more smoothly.
- Have your business cards handy and easily accessible (a pocket can be far easier – and more professional – than ferreting around a handbag or wallet)
- Make eye contact when you shake hands (practice your hand-shaking with a friend or someone around your office and ask for their feedback – there’s nothing worse than a wet fish shake!)
- When meeting someone new, try to say their name three times in the first couple of sentences and whenever you can comfortably include it afterwards – this should help cement it in your memory and reduce the chance you’ll forget by the end of the conversation.
- Ask questions and listen to the answers – they often hold the clue for your next question, which helps the conversation flow and demonstrates interest in the other person, making them feel special and valued – and they’ll like you more!
- Prepare answers for the questions you know you’ll get: I can guarantee you will be asked what your business does, and what your job is. Remember that job titles often don’t describe what you do, so prepare an answer on what you achieve. For example, an accountant might say ‘I manage the financials for our business – monthly reconciliations, managing suppliers and balancing the budget. I help us stay compliant with Canadian financial regulations.’