We all know people who can walk into a room full of total strangers and walk back out with a group of new best friends. They’re the kings and queens of conferences and mixers. At every networking event, they make small talk and introductions look easy…while you nurse a drink in the corner and limit your conversations to people you already know. (Frankly, you’d rather visit the dentist or file your taxes than approach a total stranger to promote yourself and your brand!)
If this sounds all too familiar, you aren’t alone. And better yet, there is a way for you to confidently step out from behind the potted plant you’ve been hiding behind. Networking is a part of professional life at which many engineers, scientists, and introverts from all industries tend to stall, and I’m here with a plan to help you navigate those uncharted social waters.
In today’s connected world, the ability to collaborate and innovate with others isn’t a nice skill to have—it’s a must-have. No matter how experienced or talented you may be, you’ll never be able to fully leverage your technical expertise if you are unable or unwilling to make mutually beneficial connections with other professionals.
In my book Networking for Nerds, I share concrete insight and step-by-step instructions to help even the most hesitant connector craft professional networks that are mutually beneficial and that support the advancement of career goals. Here are 11 networking principles that will help you to network productively and (relatively) painlessly:
Look for positive partnerships. Don’t think of networking as schmoozing or something slightly sleazy (like selling a used car). Successful networking is about crafting win-win partnerships that bring value to both parties—it is never about trying to extract something from someone.
So approach networking with the fundamental idea that you are seeking to find out what people need or what problems they have that you can help them with. Right off the bat, this will help you shed your reluctance to approach others with your projects and ideas.
Look at networking through a new lens. For many people, networking has a place on the “dreaded chore” list right up there with cleaning out the gutters. Others erroneously think that networking takes time away from the outputs associated with success in your profession. But it’s important to see connecting with others as a positive activity that advances your success and that’s even (gasp!) enjoyable.
Think of it this way: It is always a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to discuss topics that you and the other party are passionate about. So take pleasure in the gift of meeting new people and seeing what can come from the new exchange.
Keep the conversation positive. When you are networking and you meet someone for the first time, discuss only positive topics and steer clear of potentially controversial topics like politics and religion. You want to make a good impression and ensure that your new contact equates you with happy thoughts.
RSVP to professional events with a “yes.” You might not always feel like attending mixers, receptions, and conferences. (Let’s face it: Sometimes, your Netflix queue and a bowl of popcorn seem much more enticing.) But unless you have a compelling excuse to stay home, go to these professional events anyway.
Don’t limit yourself to industry events, either. Be on the lookout for get-togethers hosted by your alumni association or regional chapter, local charities, or other organizations for which you volunteer. And don’t stress about having an opening line when meeting new people. Just walk up to someone and introduce yourself. The more you do this, the easier it gets—I promise!
Keep some business cards in your wallet at all times. Why? You never know who you might meet at your friend’s birthday party, the neighborhood potluck, or your cousin’s wedding. For that matter, you never know who you might sit next to on your next flight!
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While the focus of social events and everyday interactions isn’t usually on business, it’s always wise to be prepared in case the conversation does veer in that direction. And on a similar note, do carefully consider the way you dress and behave when you’re off the clock, as people are always watching and making decisions about your brand. Perception equals truth in the minds of the public.
Don’t be afraid to make fellow networkers come to you. If you’re really feeling adventurous, be entrepreneurial and throw a “meetup” for people in your industry. Use Meetup.com and LinkedIn to promote the gathering.
You’ll get a chance to make new contacts and hone your skills in event planning and marketing. In addition, people will truly appreciate your initiative to bring everyone together and will take note of your expertise.
Enjoy yourself—to a point. Yes, there’s a reason why alcohol has a reputation as a “social lubricant.” It can help take the edge off your nerves, which often comes as a welcome relief at networking events.
Just watch your intake—limit yourself to one small drink, or only a few sips. Remember your ultimate purpose. You are there to network, not to get drunk.
Find a fun new group—and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities. Are you feeling a bit bored by your regular routine? Consider joining new clubs or taking classes in subjects that interest you.
Any aggregation of people presents an opportunity to make new friends and to network. And since you are all engaged in an activity that you enjoy, everyone will be in a good mood and more open to making and solidifying connections.
Use social media to be social…and to network. In between posting pictures of your family’s activities and sharing interesting articles, don’t forget to keep up your networking momentum by contributing value to professional conversations on social media sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
Explore these sites in depth and unlock their hidden potential. For example, take a tour of the underused “Find Alumni” feature on LinkedIn. You might be surprised by how many alumni are in your region or industry. Sharing an alma mater will likely make these individuals more willing to connect with you.
Be open to connecting with friends of friends…and their friends, too! As you network, be open to connecting with people who are not in your industry or who seemingly don’t have anything in common with you. Remember, the six degrees of separation theory says that we are connected to every other person on the planet by no more than six degrees—and it’s surprising how often it’s proven to be true!
So, for instance, there’s a very large chance that you know someone who knows someone who knows the head of HR at a company in which you’re interested. Additionally, you never know what information you are going to learn until you engage someone in conversation. By networking, chances are you will leave with ideas and inspiration to solve your problems or navigate your career in novel ways. This has happened to me many times!
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Give yourself a goal. If the very thought of networking makes you want to crawl under a rock and stay there (hello, introverts!), make it your goal to reach out to just 5 or 10 people a month with whom you would like to build a partnership.
Whether you’re reaching out via email, LinkedIn, or in person at an event, introduce yourself and ask for an “informal discussion.” Let them know why you want to meet with them—namely, that you are interested in exploring the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to their team. That’s all you have to do—and you’ll be amazed at your success!
Hidden, game-changing career opportunities are everywhere, but they won’t magically reveal themselves. The only way to access these clandestine gems is via networking. Most people feel that they lack the confidence to network, which gives you a distinct advantage if you do. And trust me—making fruitful connections really does get easier with practice.
About the Author:
Alaina G. Levine is the author of Networking for Nerds as well as a celebrated and internationally known speaker, comedian, career consultant, writer, and entrepreneur. She is president of Quantum Success Solutions, an enterprise dedicated to advancing the professional expertise of both nerds and non-nerds alike. To learn more, visit www.alainalevine.com or follow @AlainaGLevine.