Meet, Greet and Build: 10 Tips for Reluctant Networkers
I want you to know that I'm not good at networking. Not at all.
When I read an article I think is brilliant, I may be compelled to contact the writer and say "thanks" or offer a comment, but I hardly ever do it. When I wonder about whether or not a career move I'm making, large or small, is advisable, I sit and ponder it on my own for days without seeking advice from a colleague. If I'm invited to an out-of-town networking event, I'll dwell on the negatives: the amount of time spent driving, the money spent on gas and the time doing other valuable things (like, say, spending the evening curled up on the couch with my husband and the dogs) that I'll lose. And I almost never, and I mean never, have a business card on-hand when someone asks for one.
Networking doesn't come easily to me, though I know and admire others to whom it does. I have colleagues who are natural room-workers, floating in and out of conversations with acumen. These are usually the same people who who regularly and generously introduce contacts to one another in the hope that the relationship will result in mutual benefit. It almost always does.
Though I don't possess inherent networking skills, I've learned that I can still network successfully, and so can you. Here's how:
1. If you're invited, go.
If someone values your presence enough to extend an invitation to a networking event, you should go. It means the inviter thinks you have something meaningful to contribute to the conversations that will take place. Trust that you do and RSVP with a resounding "Y-E-S."
2. Wear your name tag.
I'm continually surprised at how many people at networking events don't make and wear name tags, even when the option and materials are offered. It's like we're all still operating under some sort of social rule we learned in the 4th grade that mandates we not wear name tags for fear of being uncool. Name tags are the quickest way for those looking for you (your inviter, for instance) to find you. And the easiest way for someone to strike up a conversation with you is to ask you about the company you represent. So include both your name and your company name on that little sticker, and post it with pride.
3. Break in gracefully.
One of the most tricky situations at any networking event is breaking into group conversations, especially if the convo is in a closed circle. According to Jodi Glickman, author of "Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It and the Secrets of Getting Ahead," it's OK to make your intentions known. She advises networkers to briefly make eye contact with someone in the circle before introducing themselves and asking to join the group discussion. Once you're in, wait a bit and let the conversation flow before asking a question. Check out Glickman's full post on breaking into conversations gracefully here.
4. Don't bulldoze the speaker.
I've seen too many people try ineffectively to get a speaker's attention at a conference by approaching them afterword and immediately launching into their own business dreams and goals. If you're able to get the speaker's attention, even in a sea of eager admirers, simply offer a handshake and a note of thanks for their great talk. Don't offer a card. Instead, follow up a day or so later with a personal email that contains links to your web site, blog or other info at the bottom. Recall the talk and, if appropriate, ask a question related to the talk. If you're able to start a dialogue, great! Maintain the relationship by touching base again in a few weeks' time. But always have a reason for doing so, and make your communication quick and worth the read.
5. Pay it back and pay it forward.
Truly great networkers have mastered the art of being gracious. I've received some of the most thoughtful emails and have had some of my most meaningful career conversations with individuals who appear to be the busiest and most important on paper. I'm always flattered that someone with an incredible amount of their own work to do will take the time out to dialogue with me. So no matter how busy you think you are, you owe it to others to share your valuable expertise and advice, too. Make time to answer contact emails as best, thoughtfully and thoroughly as you can. And when you're initiating the communication, keep it short and sweet.
6. Follow up.
Always email the host of a networking event the next day with a "great to meet you" or "thanks for inviting me" note. Contact any others with whom you've had a memorable conversation and let them know you'd like to keep in touch. If you have a solution for them that arose out of the previous evening's conversation, such as a referral to another person that may help them in their business venture, suggest making an introduction. However, don't include two people on an introduction email without running the connection by them first. You don't want to put anyone on the spot.
7. Touch base when it makes sense.
I like to touch base with interviewees, clients and colleagues on social media when appropriate. For example, if I've just had a great interview with a source, I might tweet out a note of thanks (if the tone of the article is non-confrontational and not a review, of course) and include a mention of the publication I'm writing the story for. I might mention colleagues in a Facebook post I think they'd be especially interested in. I routinely thank Twitter followers for mentions and retweets and let clients know when I've mentioned them in a social media post. Sometimes, if I think it covers a topic I know he or she is interested in, I'll email a colleague directly with a link to my latest blog post.
8. Don't forget your card.
You never know when you'll run into someone who's interested in striking up a business dialogue or relationship. So keep a handful of business cards in your purse, pocket or wallet at all times. I can't tell you how many times I've met an interesting individual who asked for my card and I was caught, to my embarrassment, without one.
9. "Fake it till you become it."
In an incredible TED Talk last year, social psychologist Amy Cuddy described the physical effects of body language in shaping our feelings about our selves and others and how those feelings shape the power dynamic in any given situation. The way we sit and stand, she said, actually affects the hormone response in our bodies that cause us to feel more or less powerful and confident. She suggested holding a "power pose" for two minutes before entering into a high-stress situation (for me, a networking event definitely constitutes one of those) in order to shape our feelings and actions positively during the event. In other words, she advised us, when feeling our most powerless, to "fake it till we become it." Try it! I've used this technique before networking events and it worked for me. Check out the full talk and a further exploration of Cuddy's power poses here.
10. Be patient.
Remember: Networking success doesn't happen overnight and neither do the results of a good networking experience. It may take several months, or even years, of relationship building before the connection results in a tangible benefit, but it's worth the patience and persistence. And it's not just about connecting with someone that may hire you later or recommend you for a top contract. A recent article published by Psychology Today states that networking fosters creativity, exposes individuals to people with diverse skill sets and helps knowledge spread. And of course, there are all of the stimulating and inspirational conversations that can be had when people who are passionate about their careers get together. Trust me, these kinds of experiences are worth the maintenance and the wait.
What tricks do you use to network successfully? Drop me a comment. I'd love to hear about it.