Networking is taught in business schools, workshops and evening courses. Books are dedicated to the cause of growing professional networks in order to aide career development and business goals, yet many still find the task awkward, clutching their plate of canapés, not knowing how to start a conversation in a room full of strangers.
What can those who don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight do to master networking? What really helped me was to demystify the concept, redefining it as a way to reach out to people with whom you can have authentic conversations. The following 10 tips are helpful to tackle a few of the key challenges when starting out – or to update your networking ways.
1. Flirting is awkward — Networking isn’t: You don’t need to be a ‘natural networker’ or a proclaimed extrovert to succeed. It’s not awkward to talk about the things you actually care about.
2. Authenticity and relevance are key: Shaking the right hands and strategically approaching strangers sounds like an artificial, icky task to master, yet people find jobs or investors through contacts and their networks. The key to not feeling opportunistic is having genuine conversations as well as paying full attention to what is being said to make sure that your reply is always relevant.
3. Net(WORK)ing: Keeping it professional is important. Ask questions about job, company, industry and trends – not hobbies and relationships. It can be challenging while hiding behind a glass of Sauvignon Blanc but the goal is to grow professionally, not to make new friends.
4. Stay in touch: It is all very well to go to networking events, striving to find new contacts but keeping in touch with old colleagues and university friends can be just as important. Don’t just utter the words ‘stay in touch’ but live by them. Find your formula if you struggle with reaching out, e.g. by adding a recurring monthly reminder to your calendar to remind you to reach out to old contacts.
5. Question time: Start a conversation by asking questions, most people like to talk about what they do. Being informed and relevant is of course helpful but a simple question about someone’s actual job – not just the title – can go a long way.
6. Say my name: Managed to introduce yourself but forgot the person’s name immediately? It happens to almost all of us but there are tricks to remember names. Repeat them, first in your head, then in the conversation. ‘Nice to meet you, Jack!’ or ‘Where is your office, Mr Daniels?’ will give you context and the conversation a personal note.
7. Take note: Create a directory and note down the conversations you had and the people with whom you had had them – turn it into a database if you want to be super geeky, maybe even tagging entries with relevant categories. Password protect the file if it contains contact information.
8. Follow up: Interested to keep in touch with someone you met at an event? Write a follow up email or message to reinforce a positive impression and remind them about the conversation you had or an interesting point that has been made. If you are struggling to come up with either, question the purpose of staying in touch altogether.
9. Connect people: When you think contacts should meet or can help each other professionally, do connect them – but warn them first, direct introductions on email can be rude and disruptive.
10. Be nice – but not too nice: Smiles go along way but take it easy on being too eager to flatter.
Finally, some of these tips may sound obvious, useful or even strange but the most important takeaway is to just go ahead and do it – go to events, don’t sweat the small talk and embrace networking in all its awkward glory. Loosen the grip on those canapés and remember that most people feel or felt the same at some point.
This post was written by Vanessa Siebler. Vanessa works at The Business of Fashion as Growth Marketing Manager. After several stints within the fashion & tech space, including Net-a-Porter, Qubit & IBM, in roles that combine marketing and strategy, she’s now responsible for driving growth through a mix of traditional digital marketing methods, analytics and creative hacks.