If the word “networking” sends nervous chills down your spine, you’re not alone. I used to be just like you. I used to think of networking as unnatural and forced, but with a bit of rethinking and lots of practice, I discovered that it’s not only beneficial to your professional and personal development, but actually a lot of fun.
Here’s how to approach it:
1. Just say hello
Unless you have a wide and varied group of friends, it is not every day that you’ll encounter a marine biologist and an aerospace engineer chatting about their projects and common interests. When you’re networking, seek out attendees who are dissimilar from you. Many events can provide an attendee list so you can target specific people or companies.
Easier still: just approach someone at random. When you speak to those outside of your immediate network, you have the opportunity to learn more about cool companies and fields, interesting things people are working on, and innovative ideas. These are insights that you won’t necessarily gain from internet searches, and can provide you with connections to industries you may have otherwise never known about.
Worried about what to say when going up to someone? As simple as it sounds, start off with a warm, confident hello and introduction and then take it from there.
2. Get to the good stuff
Coordinator of this, consultant of that. There’s no doubt that the name of your role can sound very important. However, just dropping a job title will not necessarily make any sense to the person you’re talking to. Instead, try describing what you do without using your title. What makes your job interesting? What have you accomplished? Instead of simply saying you are a marketing coordinator, for example, you could explain that you develop innovative ways to connect people to an interesting new product. This opening is more likely to incite follow-up questions, taking the conversation to another level.
3. Build a relationship
Networking isn’t just about having many brief conversations. It’s all about relationships that must be cultivated and maintained like any other relationship, so following up after the initial conversation is crucial. After I exchange business cards with someone, I quickly write something on the back of the their card that will remind me of them. It could be a cool fact they told me about their job or even their love of cats. The following day, I go through the cards I collected and reach out to everyone with a personalized message. Even a simple note such as, “It was nice meeting you last night and talking about your work with ____. Please stay in touch…” can work wonders.
Although you may not think that someone is a relevant contact right now, you never know where they will go or who they could connect you with in the future. On the other hand, if you met someone who you would like to talk to more, just ask them. I’ve found that most people – even those in high positions – are very open to meeting if you show genuine interest in learning more about what they do. Don’t be intimidated. And who knows? This person could give you some great insights or contacts that you can use to continue networking and growing.
4. Learn from the pros
Whether a small seminar, interactive workshop, or large lecture, there are lots of venues out there for developing yourself professionally. From business associations to university alumni groups and conferences, events like this offer unique opportunities to hear from notable speakers, learn about new trends in your field, and grow both personally and professionally. In my work through different chambers of commerce, I’ve learned about a wide range of topics from leaders in various fields. For example, I’ve heard the governor of Massachusetts discuss how Boston is becoming a more international city, as well as a former news anchor advise on how to present yourself in a more confident manner.
Interested in hearing more from your favorite speaker at the event or connecting professionally? Try approaching the speaker afterward and exchanging contact information or social media handles (reaching out to them via Twitter can be really natural and easy, for example.) You should also connect with the other attendees. Because they are also attending the session, you already have something in common and something to talk about.
Networking can expand your world in numerous ways. With just a bit of courage and practice, networking can become less painful, more useful and yes, fun as well.