The term “networking” gets a bad rap. People think of it as an awkward social obligation, a necessary evil of the working world, and the inverse of naturally making friends. And the truth is, it can feel that way, especially if you find yourself at a networking event, trying to network. But networking is a part of life, even when you don’t realize it. It’s just an opportunity to connect with people on similar career paths, and maybe make a new friend in the process. If nothing else, networking exposes you to new connections and opportunities you might not otherwise know about if you’re doing most of your socializing from your laptop. Meeting new people in similar fields can really open up possibilities in your career, and provide a path to where you want to go. But if the idea of face-to-face networking makes you cringe, there are ways to ease the anxiety and make the whole process feel a bit more natural. Here’s where to start:
1. Have a networking buddy.
I have a friend who gets a bit shy in social situations. He hates—no, loathes—approaching people at networking events. “I don’t know anyone here,” he’ll say. “No one knows anyone here,” I’ll say back. So, I created a game where one of us has to choose the strangers to talk to, and the other person has to initiate the conversation. Similar to dating, when approaching someone, it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just making an introduction that is key. And, if you are going to an event solo, ask someone you meet to be your networking buddy. To make things easier, this can be the first person you see when you walk into the room. Believe me, they’ll appreciate it, too.
2. Try not to ask what someone does for work.
I know that this is often the opening line people say to each other. After all, it’s the easiest one. In L.A., where I live, so many people ask this one sentence, then walk away if they don’t like the answer or if they don’t immediately think you can help them. (Don’t be that person!) However, networking isn’t just about finding job leads or work contacts, it’s about foraging friendships and getting to know people as people, not simply as their job titles. So, I try to ask other questions first: “How did you hear about this organization?”; “Where did you grow up?”; “What’s your favorite thing about living in L.A.?”; and “What kind of pets do you have?” I save the “What do you do?” for later, once I see if I have a rapport with the person and even want to network or be friends with them, post-event.
3. Have networking goals—and a concise one-liner about what you do and your best assets.
When work does come up, be your best cheerleader. If you’re looking for a job, you want to let someone know how you can (will!) add value to their lives. Think about it this way—if an HR person were introducing you, what would they say about yourself in one clear sentence? Also, know your purpose of why you are at the event. To find work? To meet like-minded people? To make new friends? Like anything in life, you should have a goal in mind. If you don’t, have no fear—it’s fine to go out just for fun, too. But the more focused your networking is, the more focused your questions will be when you’re talking to people and the better results you’ll get.
4. Talk to a minimum of five people (or two, or ten).
When you arrive, you and your buddy should have another goal in mind, also: to meet at least five new people (or two, or ten). That way, neither of you can bail beforehand or leave the other one behind, and you’re bound to connect with at least one of those people. Also, you may be the kind of person who wants to meet everyone in the room—I used to be like this—like speed dating (without the score cards at the end). However, you don’t want to come off as aloof if you only spend a few minutes with each person, so do give each one your best shot before making a polite exit. And, this is where your buddy comes in handy again, to get you moving to another conversation.