Networking can help you develop your business, foster connections, and raise your profile. That doesn’t mean you like it. It can be exhausting, awkward, and scary. No wonder a lot of people say they hate to network.
Yet you can have a better time networking, and be more successful at it, if you change your mindset.
Many people walk into a networking environment thinking “what can I get from this situation?” It’s far more useful to think, “how can I help this situation or this person.” Networking is about truly getting to know people and listening in order to provide value for the people around you.
Whether you’re entering a Zoom room, attending a panel, a cocktail hour, a workshop, or some other networking opportunity, instead of thinking “I have to network,” try to approach it from a “I get to network” point of view. The following strategies can help too.
Listen for connection
Look at every networking event as a chance to be completely saturated in what’s happening. Whenever you walk into a room or a situation, there’s always an opportunity. You just have to uncover it. You do that by asking questions and really listening.
People don’t trust a sales-y approach and can easily tell if you’re just there to advance your own objectives. Take your conversations to the next level by listening for connections; you’re probably more connected than you think.
By taking that moment longer to listen for commonalities, you can take the conversation away from the transactional. Your networking becomes more about trust- and relationship-building.
Ask exploratory questions
It’s easier to identify connections when you navigate the conversation beyond small talk with smart follow-up questions. When first meeting someone in a networking environment, they’ll typically share their name, their company, and what they do there.
Rather than saying, “oh, I’ve heard of Wendy’s Widgets,” you might ask:
- What has your career path looked like?
- Outside of work, are you involved in any organizations?
- Where did you go to school? or Did you grow up in (the city you are in)?
- If you could change one thing about your current role, what would it be?
- Who is your ideal customer?
- What do you wish you’d known when you started in this industry?
This can help you find the common ground to foster a relationship that connects you to that individual beyond business goals. This approach to the conversation also sets you up to build value as we’ll explore next.
When networking, think beyond shaking a hand or exchanging a business card. Listening to and hearing what the person has to say, and asking exploratory follow-up questions, positions you bring value to that encounter.
You might discover the person you’re speaking with faces similar challenges to another of your contacts. You might offer to introduce them onsite (if they’re both there) or to connect them over email. Or maybe you know of an organization that supports that person’s startup mission. Or you have a tool that you use that could suggest that would streamline that person’s day to day.
Differentiate yourself from everyone else by approaching networking by asking yourself “what can I bring into the room to provide value?” Instead of being calculating, you’re contributing. People do notice.
When networking is daunting, it can help to avoid making it into a comparison game. Thinking everyone is more experienced, more educated, or more connected is intimidating. You might describe yourself as a shy introvert. Thinking that everyone else in the room is an extroverted extrovert is not going to give you confidence.
Instead of comparing yourself to others, focus on this as an opportunity to know people and be known. You aren’t like everyone else. Nor should you be. Before stepping into that intimidating ballroom full of people, remind yourself that you are important and you bring value just because of who you are.
It’s generally easiest to enter a networking situation with a colleague you can count on for support (or to save you if needed). But, if you’re expecting to go in solo, do a little advance work to make that event run smoother. Send an email to your contacts or post on your social channels to ask if anyone else is going to that enterprise forum or panel discussion. Even if they’re not, people might share someone they know who will also be there. Now, at least you have a starting point.
When you have to brave a brand-new environment, be bold and introduce yourself to another person going solo. They may be grateful you’re saving them from standing alone.
Use the exploratory questions tactic again. Since it’s a new environment for you, you could ask:
- Do you know anybody else here? Who do you think I should meet?
- What are you going to do during this event to make sure it’s valuable for you?
- What’s the one thing you think I should do before I leave since I’m new here?
- Is there someone here I should talk to if I want to get more involved in this area?
Provide clear context
Clarity is caring in networking and relationship building. People can guess all day long what your goals are, what you know, and what you’re doing. But, it’s much more useful if you are willing to be clear, concise, and add context. This also leaves less room for people to make false assumptions about you or your objectives.
For example, if you want to meet someone in particular at a Women to Watch event, you might ask others there if they know her, adding why you want to meet her. This helps show your humility and will prompt more people to want to help you make that connection.
If you’re networking neutral, you might breathe a sigh of relief when that event is over and say, “well, that’s done.” Yet you still have opportunities to follow up with those new connections. Be someone who actually sends an email or makes a call afterwards to connect people or provide additional details about something you discussed while networking. This builds the relationship and continues to see you offering value.
To ensure you don’t forget who you promised what, it can help to quickly make notes right after networking. You might have a file on your phone where you voice record or write down who you talked with and what action you said you’d take. Or send yourself an email action item with these notes jotted down in the body of the email.
Make a ripple
By listening, asking questions, and adding value you can have a real ripple effect through networking. When you’re not constantly trying to sell or get things out of people, you’ll find that genuine relationships can grow from networking.
Instead of viewing networking as a necessary evil, see it as a necessary opportunity. Embrace the magic of human connection and the entire experience can change. You could end up wondering how you ever hated networking in the first place.