Networking. It’s that thing many of us feel we have to do, but love to hate. After all, if your professional success is tied in part to who you know, then don’t you need to keep expanding who you know? Well…actually, yes you do! Networking is indeed an important pathway to expanding influence, connections and opportunities. Then why, for most of us, does it feel so darn uncomfortable? Here’s my theory:
It Exposes Us: Networking puts us in front of people we don’t already know. That’s the point, right? But the tough part is that, by nature, these are people who haven’t already validated us. Or worse yet, might make quick judgments about us! It’s easy to feel exposed in this type of scenario, especially if we let our inner self-judgment monsters run wild.
We Have to Talk About Ourselves: Wait, so I already feel exposed, and now I have to talk about myself? For the majority of us, it feels uncomfortable to toot our own horn or talk about what we do. That would require us to really own it.
It Requires Effort: Let’s face it, networking takes energy and effort. It’s not easy for most people. There’s always that part of the conversation that really feels hard, or requires work. It sure would be easier to just talk with people we already know, or hang out with close friends or family instead.
It Starts With “Small Talk”: The number one complaint I hear about networking is the following – “It just feels so fake. I hate having to make small talk because it doesn’t seem authentic.” Yes, networking conversations do have to start with the basics. You can’t go from unknown person to close colleague in 60 seconds. It takes some question-asking and introductory stuff (that, yes, you often have to repeat). But I resist the idea that it has to be fake. With the right perspective, genuine curiosity and an authentic intention to truly engage, you can steer introductory conversation towards something more substantive.
With these inherent discomforts and challenges as they are, it’s even more important for us to be clear on why networking is so important. Without a clear idea of networking’s impact, we’ll either avoid it or go into it half-heartedly.
Networking is typically defined as “interactions with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career.” Through that lens, it seems a little too one-sided and based on self-interest. I like to think of networking as the act of building a web of connections in which benefit flows in all directions. There’s a powerful mutuality to it. As they say, “The more you give, the more you get.”
This powerful web of connections has a big impact on two important factors — your influence and your opportunities. If your personal or professional trajectory is dependent on whether you have influence on others, or whether opportunities come to you, then broadening and strengthening your network is critical. The combination of broad influence and multiple opportunities frequently results in career advancement, additional sales, and/or new clients.
So how can you make your networking more powerful? I’d like to invite you to think of the following 11 steps in terms of three categories:
1) Prepare, 2) Engage, and 3) Follow-Up.
- Know Your Personal Narrative: The core of networking involves introducing yourself to others. But, in most scenarios, you have limited time to do so. Take some time to clarify a few anchor points of your personal story, ones that stand out as unique or help convey your personality or passions. These will give you a roadmap for your next introduction.
- Find a Way to Stand Out: Maybe it’s a saying, word, or job title you put on your name tag. Or a colorful and different accessory or piece of clothing. Or a unique business card. Or maybe you show up slightly more formal than an event dictates. Whatever it is, standing out will help you be remembered. Take the opportunity to think about the event you’re attending, and how you’ll make your mark.
- Be Ready with a Few Starting Points: Prepare yourself with a few conversation starters. These can include questions you’ll ask, or topics from the news or recent happenings, especially if they relate to your industry or the people with which you’ll be networking.
- Power Pose: Your networking will flow more smoothly when you feel at ease and confident in your own skin. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, has shown that there’s a definitive link between body language and confidence. In fact, her research has suggested that you should spend two minutes “power posing” prior to any situation where you might need a boost in confidence. “Power posing” means adopting the stances associated with confidence, power and achievement — chest lifted, head held high, arms either up or on the hips. Try it out, in private, before your next networking event. See Amy’s TED talk here.
- Be Curious – Ask Open Ended Questions: The best way to get conversation going is to ask powerful, open-ended questions. These are questions that start with “what”, “where”, “how”, or “tell me more about.” They can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Some classic go-to questions resemble the following: “Where are you from?,” “What do you do?,” or “Tell me more about your background.” A couple other alternatives, more thought provoking in nature, include: “What are you passionate about?,” “What impact do you hope to have?” or “What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet?”
- Listen Carefully: All relationships require listening. Real listening. Not the type where you’re only listening to your internal monologue and thinking about what to say next. Be sure to make and hold eye contact. Speak the person’s name as you engage. Focus on what they’re saying. With real, intentional listening to the other person, the conversation will flow naturally based on what they’re communicating and then your authentic responses.
- Connect the Dots: Another foundational piece of relationship building involves finding connections and similarities with others. This doesn’t mean trying to force connections where there aren’t any, as that’s easily spotted. But through careful listening you can pick up on, and then point out, areas of similar experience, which naturally builds bonds with others.
- Exchange Information: This one’s a no-brainer, but still sometimes forgotten. If you’ve had a significant conversation with someone, don’t leave the interaction without exchanging cards or contact information, especially if there’s the potential to see or do business with them in the future.
- Connect Digitally: If you’ve made a positive connection in person, keep the momentum going while expanding your digital network. Ask them to connect with you on LinkedIn. If it’s appropriate, send your new contact a follow-up email to express how nice it was to meet them.
- Share Something of Value: Everyone finds value in useful content, especially when someone they know refers it. Start the mutual two-way flow of value by sharing an interesting or helpful online article (like this one!).
- Expand the Web: Become a connector that expands the web even further. Take the time to introduce, in person or digitally, two of your colleagues that may not already know each other but would benefit from the connection.
- Networking is sometimes hard and uncomfortable, as it requires real openness, effort and the intention to truly engage beyond introductory “small talk.”
- Without a clear idea of networking’s impact, you’ll either avoid it or go into it half-heartedly.
- Networking can be defined as the act of building a web of connections in which benefit flows in all directions.
- That powerful web of connections has a big impact on two important factors – your influence and your opportunities.
- If your personal or professional trajectory is tied to whether you have influence or receive opportunities, then broadening and strengthening your network is critical.
- Take your networking to the next level with tips that fall into three categories: 1) Prepare, 2) Engage and 3) Follow-Up
Try This Out:
- In preparing your personal narrative, use these questions as a prompt: Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going?
- Interview your friends and family about what qualities make you most unique and interesting. After all, they know you best. Integrate these elements into your personal narrative or networking conversations.
- Test out a business card that utilizes an unconventional size, shape or color. What reactions do you get?
- Experiment with having a networking conversation where you can only ask open-ended questions (none of those yes/no questions!).
- The next time you’re listening to someone else, make yourself aware of when you shift into your own internal monologue, and consciously direct your attention back to the other person.
- Think about a way you can support someone you recently met while networking – Who would be beneficial for them to meet? What resources would help them meet their goals?