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Expand Your Network: Networking 101

net·work·ing (net’ wûrk ing) v. To interact or engage in informal communication with others for mutual assistance or support.]

According to Webster, networking is easy. It’s casual. It’s just talking. And yet many of us are terrified at the thought of it. What exactly constitutes networking, and how can you unleash the power of a network to find everything from an honest car repair shop to a decent job? It’s not as hard as you think, and subscribing to some of the following advice will make networking a snap.

First and foremost, it’s important to view connection-making as one of the key components to your success. Transforming yourself into an effective networker will be essential to your career. It opens up doors, provides new insights, and validates your ideas for the future.

Networking happens when you make contact with new people who could possibly connect you with career-building opportunities, learn more about your interests and those of others, or gain new information related to your profession. It may be as discreet as volunteering for an organization with a mission you believe in or showing up at a book signing to strike up a conversation with a respected author. The activity could also be as bold as asking a common friend to introduce you to an executive at an industry conference or emailing a company to request an informational interview for an internship.

Sometimes finding an opportunity is pure luck—just being in the right place at the right time and meeting an amazing person. Most of the time, however, networking is a three-step process involving preparation, a strong delivery, and the follow up.

In Your Prep Time

Before an anticipated networking event or interview, it’s important that you spend an appropriate amount of time planning for it. You don’t want to simply show up and see what happens when you have the opportunity to make a good impression.

Research

Gather information about the industry, organizations and people you may come in contact with at the event. This may include googling a keynote speaker or subscribing to an industry trade journal to get up to speed with the latest news. Know what you are looking to find out. Later on, you will be able to use this information to discuss someone’s work or demonstrate your knowledge of her company. This strategy opens up opportunities for further conversation, and the person will likely take it as a compliment that she is known.

Create Icebreakers

Come up with some questions or comments you will use to start a conversation. A few examples might include:

  • “What are the future goals of your company?”
  • “How can I learn more about your organization?”
  • “Do you have internship opportunities?”
  • “Are you interested in using volunteers?”
  • “Did you enjoy the conference?”

Generate Elevator Speech

When meeting someone for the first time, you should be able to deliver a clear description of yourself that conveys your immediate and future goals in roughly 30 seconds (or about the average amount of time a person spends on an elevator). Identify key words that express who you are.

Preparing and practicing an elevator speech beforehand will give you the confidence to approach new people and tell them about yourself without taking up too much time.

Make Business Cards

At the end of a conversation with a new contact, it’s always smart to give her something concrete to remember you by and end with a handshake. The simplest thing you can do is create a professional-looking business card with your name, email address and phone number on it.

If you already have a skill or business you want to market, giving out brochures could also be effective.

Dress Appropriately

Wear clothing for the industry you want to work in. A striking color may help you stand out, as long as it’s not obnoxious.

Making the Connection

So, you’re out in the community—at a benefit, a conference, or any other type of networking event—it’s time to do your fact-finding and talk to people in your field. Networking takes social grace and subtlety.

Remember to go early, stay late and follow these simple dos and don’ts of networking.

Do Identify

When you enter the room, take notice of who your potential contacts are and evaluate whether it appears they have time for conversation. The people whom you are trying to network with should have a similar mission as you and the networking activity needs to be related for both parties.

Don’t Be Stagnant

Don’t cluster with your friends in a corner when you’re trying to network. Just take a deep breath and go out and talk to people because you won’t be able to expand your network with the same people you’ve always known.

Once you’re chatting, make sure you keep moving and don’t talk to only one person the whole time (unless the conversation is especially productive).

Do Get Endorsed

While you don’t want to cluster into a group, it’s okay to employ the buddy system with a friend and introduce each other to people whom one of you already knows. Receiving an endorsement from a mutual friend is the best way to get someone’s attention and helpful for getting the elevator speech going.

Don’t Annoy

If someone is too busy to talk to you, don’t be overaggressive in trying to get this person’s attention. Too much persistence can be a turnoff. Politely ask when a better time would be. Also, try not to come across as a know-it-all.

Do Actively Listen

Be more interested in what the other person has to say than in talking about yourself and your own goals.

Don’t Be Self-Interested

When you are doing the talking, make sure to discuss what you can contribute to an organization, not only what you can get from it. Donate time and services to fundraising events or offer to work the door. It’s likely that you’ll meet several people as the door person, but always be willing to help people without expecting anything back.

The Follow-Up

After you receive a business card, jot down a few notes about the person including where you met, the date, and what you talked about. This humanizes the event. Then, when you make contact later, you can remind your contact, “I met you last week on Flight 980 from Dallas to Pittsburgh and you were going to visit your grandparents.”

Within two to three days after meeting someone informally or having a personal meeting, you should thank the contact for her time. Be sure to reconnect within at least two weeks or the contact will become stale. You can email an appreciative note for providing information, discussing an opportunity, or lending support in general. Hand-written cards, however, are unique and will make a lasting impression.

The main thing is being able to recognize the opportunity and take advantage of it. A lot of time an opportunity is there and it goes unnoticed. It’s critical to recognize the prospect when you can still act on it because you may not get another chance.

In a networking situation, you should come across as a sharp go-getter who can hit the ground running. You want to be looked at as self-assured, confident with a can-do, will-do attitude, and as a problem solver, not a problem maker. These are all the kind of qualities others will want to take a risk on.

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