Last month, I got an email from my alma mater about a new networking forum that they developed (if you’re a Syracuse University engineering or computer science alumnus or student, check it out). I signed up for it, and I’ve been fairly active on it, posting about some of my own activities and dispensing my thoughts to students asking alumni about career advice.
I have a presentation that I do about networking, and it’s one of my more popular presentations. Indeed, networking is likely one of the most critical business skills to develop in today’s environment, even if you’re not looking for a job.
With that, I wanted to write a few tips for people who are looking to get better at networking.
Learn how to break the ice
Initiating contact is probably one of the most difficult of aspects of networking. But it is not impossible, even if you’re introverted. It might require you stepping out of your comfort zone. However, it doesn’t mean you need to go through great pains or effort to do so. It could be as simple as saying “hi” or smiling at someone. It could involve asking a question. It could be a discussion about your current event. There are a number of different ways to break the ice.
One of those ways to break the ice is…
Your clothes can be a conversation piece
I wear my heart on my sleeve — literally. I commonly wear clothing that’s representative of my sports teams, my alma mater, my fraternity, organizations that are close or important to me, and so on. When I attended PASS Summit in Seattle, a number of people stopped me and told me they were from such-and-such town, or identified themselves as fellow fraternity brothers, or even said “how about those (name of favorite team)?” This all came about because of what I was wearing. Even one of my friends once posted on my Facebook, “Ray is always reppin’!”
If you’re attending an event, be cognizant of what you wear; it can be enough to break the ice.
Any time you interact with someone is a networking opportunity
If you’re looking to interact with people with similar interests, attending events — user group meetings, conferences, etc. — is the most obvious place to do so. But what about places that are not so obvious? Examples include your book club, your gym, your church group, your extracurricular activities, your workplace, and so on.
I’ve had conversations with people in my CrossFit gym and discovered that they work in similar industries to mine. I’ve even gotten them involved in events such as my local user group and PASS Summit.
Bottom line: any time you interact with other people is an opportunity to network.
It doesn’t even have to be in-person. Keep in mind that…
Online networking is still networking
Do you have, say, 100+ friends to whom your connected over Facebook (or your favorite social media of choice)?
Guess what? That’s a network!
I once spoke with a friend about networking, and I suggested tapping into her Facebook feed. It never even occurred to her to use Facebook for that purpose. I said, “why not? You have a bunch of friends with whom you’re connected. They might have leads or information that might be helpful to you professionally. Tap into that!”
I once landed a job through one of my Facebook friends. I posted that my previous employer had let me go, and I was seeking new employment. One of my friends direct-messaged me, saying “I might have something for you. Let’s talk.” We got the ball rolling, and sure enough, I ended up working for my friend!
If you have an established online social network, don’t be afraid to tap into that. Your online network doesn’t have to be strictly social; you can use it for professional purposes as well.
You don’t have to be friends to be networked
Ideally, you’d want to be friends with your networking contacts. The stronger the relationship between you and your contacts, the stronger your network will be.
That said, you don’t have to be buddies with your networking contacts. Being acquainted is just fine. I’ve connected to a number of people whom I probably wouldn’t know if I bumped into them on the street. All that matters is that you’ve established some kind of relationship with the other person.
Speaking of relationships…
“Connected” does NOT mean “networked”
I once had this happen to me after a weekend where I spoke at a SQL Saturday. I won’t rehash the details here; go ahead and read my article.
In my honest opinion, in order to have a network, you need to have some kind of relationship. Networking is a two-way street, where each side can assist the other. It doesn’t have to be anything big; it can be as simple as “so-and-so is looking for a job, and I’m forwarding his/her post as to what (s)he wants,” or even “I saw you’re looking for help with such-and-such; maybe this will help.” To me, “I think you’re cool and I want to connect with you” is NOT a good reason to network. Hey, I like Derek Jeter, but just because I’m following him doesn’t mean he’s part of my network.
Always have a way to continue the conversation
Let’s say you just met someone whom you either admire or can help you professionally. You talk for a while, end with “nice meeting you,” shake hands, and move on.
Did you create a networking contact? My answer is no.
In this scenario, you did not include a way to continue the conversation. In all likelihood, (s)he won’t even remember your name hours after you parted ways. That does nothing to build your network.
There are a number of ways you can do this. A couple of ways I’d recommend are…
Have business cards
I have my own business cards that I use for networking purposes. I used my own creativity in designing them so that they’d be eye-catching, a conversation piece, and a way for me to be remembered. Of course, they also include my contact info so that we can continue our conversation.
In a face-to-face encounter, I consider business cards to be one of the most important networking tools you can have. Why?
Consider this scenario: you’ve just finished a conversation and want to talk later. One of you says, “let me find a piece of paper to write down your email.” However, you have neither a pen or a piece of paper available. Neither of you wants to take the effort to enter the other’s contact info in your phones.
Hmmm. If only there was a way to easily exchange contact info.
Hey! Business cards!
Always have business cards available to distribute. You’ll instantly be able to provide your contact info and continue your conversation.
LinkedIn is your friend
In my honest opinion, if business cards are your most important networking tool, LinkedIn might come in second.
Professionals take LinkedIn seriously. I’ve even seen spaces for LinkedIn addresses on employment applications, which, to me, indicates that businesses take LinkedIn seriously.
A LinkedIn profile does a number of things. Like business cards, it provides a way to continue your conversation. It serves as your online resume. It provides an avenue for you to post about your accomplishments and thoughts. It is an important tool for professionals. In my opinion, if you’re serious about networking, you absolutely must have a LinkedIn account.
These are just a few ways in which you can hone your networking skills; there are many others that I haven’t even touched upon. (You can learn more if you attend my networking presentation! </plug>) We do not live in a vacuum, and no (wo)man is an island. These days, maintaining a strong network is vital for your professional health, and a way to ensure that you will be successful in your career.