You’ve probably heard of how important it is for opening new doors for your career and business. But if you’re among the 40%–60% of adults who describe themselves as “shy,” meeting and talking to new people can seem like a daunting task. You’re probably wondering what the secret is to networking and why some people are more successful at it than others. Surely there is something that pro networkers do that sets them apart from the crowd — and there is.
The big secret to networking is … getting out there and just doing it.
That may not seem like the most helpful advice since it doesn’t make the task any easier, but it’s true. When it comes to networking, practice makes perfect. To quote networking guru Dr. Ivan Misner, “Networking is a contact sport! You have to get out and connect with people.” There is really no other way to do it.
But what if you say or do something awkward? Well, you probably will a few times. Like learning any skill, networking takes time to perfect and get down to a science. Making mistakes and growing is just part of the experience. But beyond just “doing it,” there are some things that you should keep in mind while you’re learning how to network.
Almost all successful relationships between people are “give and take” — meaning they are mutually beneficial to both parties. Nobody wants to feel like they are being used, so make sure that you’re willing to give to your networking relationships before you take. Making a good impression can be as simple as offering to do a small favor for the person you are talking with. Did they mention that they are a car fanatic? Invite them to your Sunday barbecue to look at your vintage VW Beetle. Did they just move into town and are looking for a good hairstylist? Say that you can get them 20% off at your salon. Make it clear that knowing you can open doors for the other person as well.
Now to be clear, you should only offer a small favor when you’re first meeting someone — and only if the moment presents itself properly. Don’t start scrambling over yourself trying to refill their drink every time it’s empty or offer to watch their dog for a week while they’re on vacation. That will make you seem desperate and a little bit creepy. Those sorts of favors should be reserved for friends and family. Over time, some of the people in your network may become friends, and then you might be able to start doing some larger favors for them.
If you’re at a networking event, you will probably be meeting a lot of people at once. That means that following up with people is essential if you want them to remember you out of the crowd. Make sure that you are collecting contact information from the people you’re meeting so you can connect with them later through LinkedIn or by email.
When you are following up, make sure it is soon after the event so your connections will still have your conversation fresh in their minds. Be sure to be polite when you’re sending your follow-up message. Your message should be simple and direct and remind them of who you are.
For example, you could follow up with a networking connection by sending the following message through LinkedIn: “Hello Greg, it’s nice to connect with you again. My name is Alice Rogers and we met a few nights ago at the Meat and Greet for the Boston Butchers Association. I hope you got a chance to enjoy that 20% off coupon for Dina’s Deli. I’m partial to their roast beef sandwich myself.”
This message works because it’s not too long, reminds the person of who you are, and opens the avenue back up for conversation. If your connection doesn’t respond, don’t get discouraged. You can try following up again after a week or two.
Often, networking can start out like any other normal conversation, so you should treat it as such. Look out for social cues that you would normally be aware of to indicate how the other person is responding to you. This takes a bit of practice since social rules are a bit different in a professional setting, but after a few encounters, you should start becoming more comfortable and better able to read the signals you are receiving.
While it may seem cliche, “being yourself” is essential if you want to stand out from the crowd while networking. If you’re presenting a wooden, overly formal version of yourself, you are doing yourself a disservice. This is especially true if you’re at a networking event with a lot of people because you’re not going to stand out among the crowd.
So be you, but an elevated version of you. If you’re used to making crass jokes or swearing, it’s probably best to keep that to a minimum when you’re first meeting people. But if you have a cool hobby, story, or idea, feel free to share them. Brand yourself as an individual with unique interests.
If you’re interested in learning more tips or strategies for networking, there are lots of great guides and blog posts available online. Since networking can be specific to certain industries, it may be worthwhile to look into what experts recommend you do for your particular field. But through a little bit of practice, you too can become a networking pro.