Networking can seem like an incredibly daunting and foreign task for someone just getting started in the field—and even for those who have been in the field for some time. It’s easy to feel awkward and insecure, and struggle to even know where to start. I know this, because this was my experience until the past couple of years, when I moved into a role where networking ability has been a foundational competency to achieve my professional goals. Since then I’ve had ample experience networking across numerous contexts, and now find the opportunity to meet and connect with new and interesting people to be one of the most exciting and intellectually stimulating parts of my job. My hope is that this article can help de-mystify the process of networking, and help you get to your comfort zone a little more quickly.
General Networking Tips
Regardless whether you’re meeting with someone briefly or you share a memorable conversation, you need a way to get in touch with each other later. Business cards are the industry standard for helping facilitate this follow-up. Having attractive business cards handy is an easy way to project professionalism and facilitate further communication.
It’s difficult to form meaningful connections with others based on isolated, brief interactions at events. Ideally that initial connection gets the ball rolling, and then you follow up the conversation with an e-mail dialogue. One of the easiest ways to tell if someone who approaches you is actually interested in collaborating with you is whether they follow-up afterwards via e-mail.
Oftentimes in networking situations you won’t have very long to make an impression. Being able to represent yourself concisely, with an emphasis on what makes your work or perspective unique, is critical. As a point of comparison, think YouTube ads: they have to hook you in the first 5 seconds, or you’ll skip the rest of the commercial to watch your video. If you can’t hook someone you’re talking to within the first couple of minutes, you won’t stand out to them from the large number of other professionals they’re likely meeting right after you.
Examples of these situations could be after someone presents a seminar or talk, a poster hour at a conference, or prior to or after a meeting involving numerous influential people.
Networking conversations aren’t like regular conversations. Although sometimes it’s appropriate to carry on long conversations that span numerous topics, generally you’re looking more at 1-2 topics, and speaking for under 5 minutes. It’s kind of like speed dating: if you find someone you really like, you’re going to talk a little more in the moment, and definitely follow up with them afterwards. But it gets awkward and can show a lack of awareness for the social situation, if you don’t rotate to your next partner when your time is up. Unlike with speed dating, though, there is no bell or announcement with networking – someone has to disengage from the conversation. It’s helpful if you can do that in a polite and friendly way after a reasonable amount of time, rather than having the person you approached feel uncomfortable and/or the need to excuse themselves from you.
The purpose of networking events is to make as many quality connections as possible – most people at the event share this goal, not just you. Spending (very) long periods talking to just one person can be counterproductive for this, so don’t take offense if someone moves away! You’re all there trying to do the same general thing.
There are often circumstances where you know you want to talk with someone in particular: a member of governance, someone who just gave a keynote speech, etc. In these cases, approach the interaction with an objective in mind – examples of this include asking a follow-up question you’d answered after their talk, or presenting the reason why you think arranging a time to meet individually later would be mutually beneficial. Bear in mind that the person you’re speaking with is usually approached by many others for similar reasons (there may even be someone waiting behind you right now!), so it is important to make an impression and gain their interest quickly.
A big part of networking is being in a context where you are able to meet others whose work is related to your work. It’s easy to sink into our silos, never poking our heads out or entering into broader circles. Make sure to avoid this! A fantastic way to network is to reach outside your immediate work colleagues and collaborate on projects with the people you want to connect with. Oftentimes there are relatively accessible channels to get involved with these types of organizations or groups without much preamble – when someone new makes it clear they are passionate about contributing to a group, there is usually an avenue to allow them to do this.
It’s easy in your early career to feel intimidated, or wonder what you have to offer in a conversation with someone much your senior, in a high-leverage position, or with a fantastic CV. Remember: you’re running in the same circles they are for a reason! Speak to others with the mindset that they will benefit from connecting with you, and that you have something valuable to offer them from that relationship. Successful professional networking is a balance between confidence, humility, and a desire to promote each other’s goals through collaboration. If you don’t project confidence that you’ll bring value to a professional relationship, the person you’re speaking with likely won’t come to that conclusion on their own.
I hope this has been helpful! Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions – I’m available at firstname.lastname@example.org.