"Get out there and network" is a classic recommendation lobbed at folks who are looking for career advancement. But the ins and outs of actually going to a strange event and talking to strangers for personal gain can feel awkward at best. Here are some tried and true tips that always work for me. Never fear, it gets easier with practice!
Networking (aka talking to people)
First of all, it's always helpful to remember that you're just going to be talking, to people. You don't even need to talk about work unless you want to.
I find that networking is easier the less I focus on my ultimate goals. It's normal to feel nervous about asking strangers for something like job opportunities or trying to find new clients, because those two cases mean *asking* for something, which can be quite difficult. Instead, think about what you can offer people. Even if it's just a few minutes of pleasant conversation, you'll be remembered fondly. Down the road you can make your ask if it's appropriate.
If talking to strangers in and of itself makes you nervous, set a small goal for yourself (i.e., talk to one or two strangers; you are allowed to start small).
However -- don't make your modest goal about giving out cards or receiving cards. The mark of a nervous networker is the person who walks up to you, blurts out a sentence about their company and pushes a card into your hand. Instead I recommend focusing on having a pleasant and natural conversation. If we actually have a legitimate reason to exchange cards, I'll offer one, but a stack of cards does not necessarily mean you had a successful networking experience.
Find an appropriate place to network
Most successful networking happens at conferences and industry events, but it can even happen in the office cafeteria. In my line of work, sustainability, it often happens at social gatherings, because many people have a personal interest in sustainability, so it's easy for TriplePundit to come up. Just don't force it.
Approach a stranger
Now, here's my big secret. At any networking event, there are probably bigwigs that everyone is trying to talk to (think of the speakers at a conference or the boss at a corporate event.) Stay far away from that pack! Even if you can make it to the front of the line, you'll only have a minute or two to make a connection, and everyone will be watching -- way too much pressure. If you truly want to make a connection with these folks, reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn after the event. The fact that you were at the same event but didn't have a chance to talk is your in!
Instead, look around the room. Is there anyone standing by themselves looking at their phone, or sitting at a table looking at a brochure? That is your person. This person doesn't know anyone either. By approaching him or her, you are easing someone else's anxiety, and they'll be grateful right off the bat. Chat them up, and you have a new conference buddy!
What to talk about
Once you approach someone, you need an opener. A failsafe is "what brought you here?" Everyone has some reason for standing in that room.
Then you need to keep the conversation flowing. The key is to ask some questions. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, so the classics like "Where do you work?" "Where are you from?" and "Any exciting plans for the weekend?" are failsafes.
Instead of focusing on what you can get out of talking to this person, think about how you can help them -- first and foremost put them at ease in a nerve-wracking situation, introduce them to someone they should know, or share the name of a book they might enjoy reading or news tidbit from your field.
Advanced maneuver -- approaching a group
Even the most seasoned networker can feel nervous approaching a group. What if they are all friends and they are talking about someone who just died?
Body language is key here. Look for people who are not standing too close together, and look for signs that they are in business mode -- standing up straight, square shoulders and generally "professional." These people probably don't know each other too well, which is what you want. When you approach the group, it's quite possible that they're reaching the end of their own awkward get-to-know-you conversation, in which case they'll be happy for some new blood. Listen in to see what they are talking about, wait for a break in the conversation and add your own opinions.
Don't be offended if one of them takes the opportunity to wander off. He or she was probably looking for an exit already and your arrival provides the perfect excuse. If you are left with one person, proceed with the conversation suggestions above.
Making an exit
When you have almost exhausted everything you can think of to naturally discuss with your conversation-mate, that's the perfect time to make an exit. If you wait for an awkward pause, it will be too late, because it's obvious you're leaving because you've run out of things to discuss, which can feel rude. With that said, everyone is at a networking event to meet people, so don't worry if your ending is a bit abrupt or awkward; it's part of the game. Here are some good catch-phrases to keep on hand for your natural exit:
It was great talking to you! ...
- But I see a co-worker/friend/someone-I need-to-catch over there
- I'm going to go grab a drink/I'm starving and I need to grab a bite
- I have to make a phone call
- I need to call my kids/husband/wife before bed
- I've got to catch up on my email
Then, it's just a handshake/business card exchange, and you are out the door!
I'm a big fan of LinkedIn for follow-ups. When you connect, it gives you a chance to ask a follow-up question or continue the conversation. You can usually find folks whether or not you got their email, as long as you remember part of their name and company. Connecting on LinkedIn also means you'll be able to find this person in two years when you might need them, more easily than you can find their card. And you can also keep track of them when they switch jobs.
Bonus: Networking in the digital age
LinkedIn works for me but it's not for everyone. Check to see if your target has more than 500 followers. If they do, it is fair game to cold-connect to them. If they do not look super active on LinkedIn, see if they are active on Twitter, or search for their email address.
When you reach out, make sure that you have a specific ask in mind. If someone wants career or blogging advice from me, I'm happy to try to help! It is more difficult if they have a general request because these are more ambiguous and it can be tough to figure out how I can help.
With networking online, the rules of in-person networking are out the window. Don't be afraid to ask for something specific.
What about you? Share your networking tips on Twitter with me @jenboynton and @WLCLV, The Women's Leadership Conference Las Vegas -- who made this post possible. Looking forward to continuing the conversation online and at the conference in July!
Image credit: MGM Resorts Foundation
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.