Working in the tech industry, I know networking is important. I've seen a whole host of benefits from the networking I've done in the past, including:
- Finding new clients as a freelancer
- Finding a new full-time job
- Help with spreading the word when I'm working on a new project
- Advice on improving my projects from others with more experience
Of course, there are many more benefits that I haven't come across personally yet. Having a strong network can help you with fundraising, getting introductions to investors, mentors, or potential new hires, increasing the exposure of your product, and even helping you find new customers.
But the benefits of networking don't offset how unnatural it feels for many of us. Traditional networking events can be awkward, time-consuming, and often don't feel very useful.
I've let those downsides turn me off networking recently, but I know I need to get the ball rolling again if I'm going to improve my work and share it with more people. So I've started looking for advice about networking from people who are already great at it.
The main thing I've realised during my research is how changing how I think about networking can improve how I feel about doing it.
Rethink your approach to networking
If you think about networking as I do, a kind of necessary activity that can be uncomfortable and take your time away from other work, adjusting your approach can make networking more fun and more beneficial.
Stop going to networking events
This is a counter-intuitive place to start, but networking events aren’t the only way to meet new people. Kate Finley, marketing manager for McGoodwin James, suggests looking for options to connect with people in small gatherings, like a sports club or hobby group.
I love to play soccer, and I’ve joined after-work coed teams in every city I’ve lived in. Whether I’m in Palo Alto, London, or San Diego, I can always find a team to jump in on, and some of my best business contacts (and perhaps more importantly, most enduring friendships) have been made with my fellow soccer enthusiasts.
Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests creating your own gatherings if traditional networking events don’t appeal. For someone who finds big crowds and noisy environments overwhelming, a relaxing, intimate dinner party might be a better way to get to know people you admire. Or you could simply reach out to individuals to set up one-on-one meetings.
Author Ramit Sethi advocates the one-on-one approach. Sethi suggests reaching out through a warm contact, rather than a cold email, being concise in your initial contact, and pointing out any similarities or shared interests you have with the person you want to meet. When you do follow up with a meeting, you should be prepared with insightful questions, says Sethi.
GOOD: I noticed you did XYZ. It’s interesting because Very-Important-Person took a different approach and did ABC. What was your thinking? BAD: I’m so unhappy at my job. What should I do with my life? Ugh. Get a bowl of soup and a therapist.
The most common advice I've come across about rethinking your approach to networking is to stop thinking of it as a "take" situation, and start thinking about giving.
It is better to give than to receive. — Adam Rifkin
Commonly known as a master networker, Adam Rifkin, the CEO of Pandawhale, says helping others is the key to building a strong network. "Look for opportunities to do something for the other person," says Rifkin, "such as sharing knowledge or offering an introduction to someone that person might not know but would be interested in knowing."
You can also share your own knowledge, or information you come across that might be useful to someone you know. The more often you show that you're trying to help someone, says Rifkin, "the more likely that person will begin to keep you in mind as well."
Stop thinking of networking as a “take” situation, and start thinking about giving.
Steve Blank, author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, says this approach is the trick to getting meetings with very busy people. If you’re following Ramit Sethi’s advice to try setting up one-on-one meetings, you’ll want to pay attention here. Blank gets many requests to spend time with entrepreneurs every day, but the ones he makes time for, he says, are those who offer to teach him something in return for his knowledge and advice.
This offer of teaching me something changes the agenda of the meeting from a one-way, you're learning from me, to a two-way, we're learning from each other.
According to Rifkin, the most important part of this approach is to help others without expecting anything. When you give to others without expecting anything in return, others will be encouraged to help you naturally.
I always thought networking was about meeting as many people as possible and having a lot of contacts. But it turns out successful networking doesn't have to be about how many people you know.
Adam Rifkin suggests prioritising how you spend your networking efforts. One exercise Rifkin suggests is thinking about the first 5-10 people you would call if you lost your job (or your business failed) today. Those relationships are clearly important to you, so Rifkin says you should make a point to prioritise spending time on strengthening those relationships before you need them.
Another prioritisation exercise Rifkin suggests is to think about the 5-10 people you spend most of your time with. If you're not happy with who these people are, Rifkin says to focus your energy on adjusting who you count in this group. If you are happy with that group of people, Rifkin says to focus on simply bringing one new person into that group.
Both of these activities help focus your networking efforts on people who are most important to you. Unlike my previous idea of networking—spending hours every month at big events meeting lots of new people—this approach makes networking more achievable and more useful.
Another misconception I had about networking was that I should be able to create deep connections with all the people I meet at networking events. If I didn't come away from an event with a handful of contacts that already seemed useful, I thought I'd failed at networking.
But I was relieved to find that pro networkers say not to look for deep connections at networking events. According to Kate Finley, "Large, crowded events aren't designed for cultivating deep relationships, but rather for making initial contact."
Rather than trying to make strong connections immediately, Finley says to spend just enough time with each person that you feel comfortable following up later. For those of us who are introverted or shy, and find it hard to spend time in big crowds of people, this approach is less overwhelming than trying to build deep connections with every person we meet.
Meet a few people, establish quick connections, and escape, ready to follow up on your fledgling relationships! — Kate Finley
Rifkin agrees with this approach. "Most people try to escalate a relationship too quickly," he says, but "trust is built slowly, over time."
Networking tips from the pros
So what about when you're actually networking with people? Changing your attitude to networking doesn't take away the anxiety of meeting strangers!
Let's take a look at some of the more specific tips from pro networkers.
Act like a journalist
Danny Iny, founder and CEO of Mirasee, offers this clever tip. If you're uncomfortable making small talk at networking events, try thinking of yourself as a journalist in disguise.
Aim for one-on-one conversations, says Iny, and imagine your assignment is to produce a compelling feature article on the person you're talking to. You don't want to interrogate them, obviously, but try to listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions to see if you can uncover something interesting about each person you talk to.
Having this challenge in mind can give you a focus for your conversation, and help you pay more attention to the person you're talking to, rather than your own nerves.
Another great tip for introverts, or anyone who gets overwhelmed by networking events, is to let yourself take breaks. Kate Finley says this helps her get through long events without running out of energy:
Consistently taking the time to recharge alone allows you to approach your networking sessions with renewed spunk.
If you need to leave an event for a few minutes alone or a quick walk around the block, feel free. Letting yourself take breaks to get through the energy-demanding event can make it more manageable so you still reap the benefits of meeting new people without burning yourself out.
Dorie Clark suggests thinking of yourself as athletes do—after performing, an athlete knows their muscles need time to rest before another event. Your energy is the same, especially if you're introverted and find big events zap your energy, rather than pumping you up. "...alternating between social and quiet time enables me to be at my best when I do interact with people," says Clark.
Reach out before the event
To overcome the awkwardness of not knowing people at an event, Lisa Petrilli, CEO of C-Level Strategies, Inc., suggests reaching out before the event. If you know of some people who'll be attending the event, reach out to them on social media and let them know you're looking forward to meeting them.
This pre-introduction leads to a more relaxed and productive in-person connection. By reaching out, you open the door to potentially rewarding business collaborations, and you do so on your own terms. — Lisa Petrilli
Those few moments when you first enter an event can be the most nerve-wracking. If you didn't know anyone attending that you could reach out to before the event, another way to get past the initial awkwardness of not knowing someone is to jump in a queue. Whether it's a line for the bathroom, the buffet, or the bar, any kind of queue will give you a purpose so you don't feel adrift in the middle of the room.
And more importantly, it makes it easy to start up a conversation with whoever's next to you in line. With a shared purpose and a short time for chatting, it's less nerve-wracking to start a casual chat. You might not meet a useful business contact (though you might!) but you'll work out those nerves about starting your first conversation with a stranger.
Start with old friends
Research shows dormant contacts (that is, colleagues or friends you haven't spoken to in more than three years) tend to be at least as useful as current contacts—sometimes even more so.
We tend to overlook dormant contacts as not being useful, but a study of MBA students found that after ranking their top ten dormant contacts in order of how useful they thought they'd be, the students actually saw no correlation in the help they got with a work project and how useful they rated their contacts. The students' dormant contacts were at least at helpful as their current contacts, and they were stable in their help throughout the top ten list, regardless of ranking.
In other words, we tend to have the wrong idea about old friends and colleagues.
Dormant contacts tend to be at least as useful as current contacts—sometimes even more so.
The good thing about this research is that it's easier to reach out to someone you already know that a stranger. If you're struggling with networking, try starting out easy with old friends and colleagues. Re-strengthen those ties to build your confidence before stepping up to building new connections.
Make it a habit
Adam Rifkin suggests putting a little effort into your network every day, especially if you find networking difficult or uncomfortable. Ask for an introduction, follow up with someone you already know, or set up a meeting. It doesn't matter what you do, just build the habit of connecting professionally with one person every day.
Rifkin also suggests practicing making introductions. Follow up after introducing people to find out how useful the connection was, he suggests, and take on feedback from the introductions you make so you can get better at this skill in the future.
Prepare with scripts and goals
Knowing how to approach a networking situation in advance can take some of the anxiety out of it. Career coach Marie G. McIntyre suggests creating rough scripts to use when introducing yourself, making introductions, or asking for help. You don't want to rehearse a word-for-word script, McIntyre says, but rather have an outline in mind so you always get across your most important points without rambling.
This can be handy for in-person networking, but also sending emails or making phone calls. Knowing your purpose and the rough outline of your introduction or pitch can help calm the nerves, especially if you're about to be chatting with a stranger for the first time.
McIntyre also suggests setting yourself a goal before attending a networking event. For instance, you might set a goal to make one or two connections. This gives you a reason to push yourself to meet new people, but it also gives you a limit. Once you've hit that goal, if you're not enjoying the event you can leave early. Clearly defined parameters for what you want to achieve and at what point you're happy to leave can make it easier to face a big event.
I'm not rushing out to sign up for networking events, because the idea of spending hours among a big group of strangers still makes me a little nervous. But I'm not dreading these events quite so much after doing all this research. For one thing, I'm keen to try out some of these tips to see how much I can improve my own networking skills.
But more than anything, I took away from my research the idea that networking is a skill that you can build with time and practice. It's a relief to know that even though I'm not great at networking now, I can improve if I put in the effort.
Networking is a skill that you can build with time and practice.