When you hear the word “networking,” what’s your gut reaction? Is it “ugh… not for me”? If so, today’s post is for you!
I highly dislike communicating with strangers; crowds are not my thing, chit chat is super hard and making “connections” just to build a professional network has always felt a little too artificial for my liking. And talk about the energy drain! Networking events (even hang outs with friends) are so exhausting.
And while networking is not my favorite activity, I’ve realized in the past few years that it is crucially important for opening up your opportunities (academic or professional). I’ve also realized that the process of networking doesn’t have to be so painful.
I am here to try to guide you, not because I am an expert, but because I feel your struggle.
First things first, I think we should come to terms with one reality. You’re not going to become a networking superstar overnight. However, you can get good at networking over time – especially if you come up with personal strategies that make sense for your goals. For example, you might want to begin by making your goals clear to yourself. What do you want to come out of your networking efforts? Do you want to find a job? Do you want to score some informational interviews? Do you want to simply get to know people in organizations and fields that interest you? Or do you want to strengthen existing ties? Each goal comes with slightly different strategies. You might want to focus on simply starting to talk with people – get to know who and what’s out there. Or, you might want to focus on chatting with a few specific people and ask them for advice.You might even start by reaching out to people you’re comfortable with – friends and family!
Now, let’s talk about mindset. It’s super important to feel confident going into a networking event or a meeting with someone new. This isn’t the same thing as not being nervous. You have every right to be nervous, and it’s okay to be anxious – but also know that you can do this. The night before a networking day, you might feel like throwing up, but remember that in 24 hours, it will be over. You will survive – it’s just human interaction, after all. Easy Peasy 🙂
Some of my tips and tricks for networking:
- But where do you even find a networking event? You might ask friends, look for postings in Facebook events, MeetUp groups, college alumni groups, etc. Keep in mind that some events might not necessarily be marketed as professional networking, and might be happy hour gatherings or some other kind of event. If you can secure a meeting through drinks or at an arts event, why not, right?
- Bonus tip: many alumni network get-togethers are open to friends who went to different schools. So even if you didn’t go to a specific school, if you want to join their network – you definitely can! The key is to find someone you know with access to that loop!
- Pre-networking event: Have plenty of talks with yourself. Be your own cheerleader. You may be anxious now, but really, what’s the worst that can happen? You can think I’m lying, but I swear that if you take a few moments to quite literally say to yourself, “I can do this, it will all be okay,” you will suddenly feel a little bit better 🙂
- At the event: Bring a friend (or two, or three) to the networking event. There is strength in numbers. You might split up during the event, but even showing up together can ease some of the awkwardness. If both of you feel uneasy with networking, it’s totally okay to start off approaching conversations together. Especially with older (as in decades older) folks, I’ve found that they sometimes appreciate a little audience. They can usually also direct you to more people to talk with 😉
- But Aya, I don’t know HOW to talk to people. I hear you. Okay, in this case, always remember that they’re human too! People know that networking isn’t fun for everybody, so they will understand if you’re a bit awkward about it. That being said, here are things you can do/say. First, obviously, say hello (with a handshake, or not), tell them a bit about yourself (did you just graduate from school? What kind of connections are you hoping to make? Why are you at the event?) and then ask them to share a bit about themselves: I would love to hear about what you do! Or, I’m curious to hear about your career trajectory.
- As long as you don’t go overboard, it’s totally okay to be honest with your nervousness. If networking really, really, really isn’t your thing. It’s okay to be like: “It’s so nice to meet you! I’m feeling a bit nervous – networking is really not my thing – but I would love it if you could share your story with me. How did you get to your current position?”
- You don’t have to talk to people right away. It’s totally okay to take the time to observe the room, get a snack/drink and wait for your nerves to calm down a little bit. This is not a sink or swim exercise. If you see a large clump/circle of people, you might want to float towards them and “warm up.” After some observation, you can probably identify some people who seem really at ease with the whole networking thing – seek those people out! It’s always easier to talk to someone who is gifted with speaking – they are used to dealing with different kinds of people so that you won’t feel as awkward! It’s also the perfect opportunity to learn about networking! If the main reason you are networking is to get better at networking, I think you can totally ask people for advice on how to get started. Network to learn about networking!
- Be kind, honest, and listen well. This is not rocket science. Being kind is key to networking – especially for what I like to call genuine networking. You can make real, meaningful connections through networking events and informal social situations. You want to be honest about yourself and your interests. For example, if the conversation is pleasant but not what you were hoping for (i.e. completely different fields) you can bow out gracefully at a pause in conversation: “It was so great to meet you – I’m just going to see if I can get to know a few more people while I’m here!” Or, “Thank you so much for speaking with me. Do you know anyone else here that I might be able to talk with?” Finally, when someone is sharing their story with you, listen well. 1) It’s just polite and 2) You will find surprising “in’s” in the conversation.
- Thanks to research and also just regular observation, it’s no longer a secret that job connections can happen from completely random things. Building connections isn’t about showing how qualified you are for the kind of job you’re looking for. It might be your interest in music, sports, travel, or a particular social issue. Try to find out some personal interests, and you’ll be surprised at how you can form meaningful connections!
- Keep in touch! This is super important. If you found someone that you would like to keep in touch with, make sure to get their business card or ask them for their email/phone (although, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably prefer email). Always thank them for chatting with you – leave a good impression! 🙂
- If you’re networking with people similar to your age, you might find a much more relaxed atmosphere. If this is the case, especially if you’re still in college/grad school/professional program, I think it’s totally fine to ask them to connect on LinkedIn and even Facebook (obviously, use your good judgment on this one).
- This isn’t a tip for networking, but it will help: Take care of yourself. You know how you prepare for an interview? Getting a good night’s sleep, drinking water, eating well, and all that? It’s the same for any formal networking event! Make sure you’re in tip-top shape so that you’re prepared for the energy drain.
- If you start feeling lightheaded when you’re around a crowd of people (or even just a room full of people) – take a few moments to go out to the restroom or just outside and take a breather.
Are you still stressed about networking? I totally understand, but try to remember that in the end, the best connections come from the times when you’re not trying so hard. It’s okay to be nervous, but also remember that you’ll be okay! Start by reaching out to those close to you: your friends are your network, your neighbors are your network, your family and your family’s friends are your networks.
What is the absolute worst that can happen? I promise you won’t die from awkwardness or clammy hands at the networking event. Networking is just one piece of the puzzle. 🙂