Networking. It’s enough to put a chill in the spine of the biggest extrovert — and I’m certainly not an extrovert, even in the slightest. When I was first looking for a job and figuring out my professional path, I avoided networking like the plague. I knew I should make “connections” and “grow my network,” but I wasn’t able to summon up the courage to go out and do it.
But we also know how important it is as a skill: a series of studies have estimated that anywhere between 70 to 85 percent of jobs are never posted — they’re filled through networking.
In fact, it wasn’t until I rethought the whole way I approached a networking event that I was able to build relationships and network in a way that works for me. So today I’m sharing my top three tips on how to network like a champion — even if you hate small talk.
1. Choose your events carefully
There are many ways to network, and several kinds of networking events. Usually, the concept of networking that makes a lot of us bristle is the traditional event akin to a Chamber of Commerce or professional association gathering. That’s where you have people walking around in suits, eyeing each other, delivering their prepared elevator pitches, shaking hands, and passing out business cards by the dozens.
Those events are just fine if you’re looking to meet quite a few people, or if you’re particularly bold and extroverted. But that’s just not me. It takes a lot for me to walk up to someone I don’t know and start talking to them, so I’m not going to waste my time at an event that’s probably just going to leave me stressed, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
But there’s another way to network — one that I’ve found to be much more impactful, and one that’s successfully landed me opportunities time and time again. You’ve got to rethink what it means to network: your goal is not to meet as many people as possible, but to build relationships and find a place in your field.
For academics or graduate students, an academic conference is a great place for that, whether you’re presenting or not. For others, maybe it’s attending a nonprofit organization’s young professionals night or an alumni event. Or perhaps it’s as simple as attending an optional council or meeting for work.
Either way, the focus is on meaningful and personal relationships – something that might help ease the stress factor involved with networking in the first place.
The outcome for this targeted type of networking is to meet interesting and impactful people who can inspire you, so spend time thinking about what kind of people you’d like to connect with first. Then go find where those people are gathering and look for opportunities to get involved.
2. Do your homework – before and after
So you’ve picked your event, and you show up ready to meet people and change your professional life. But then you’re confronted with the reality that there are dozens of faces you don’t recognize, and when someone asks you what you do, you freeze up. After all, you have several jobs and hobbies — how are you supposed to know which one to talk about? You panic and before you know it, you’re throwing a business card at the other person, mumbling something about wanting to connect, and running away.
That’s not ideal. Even when you’re at the perfect networking event, preparation will help you put forward your best impression. You don’t need to rehearse exactly what you’re going to say or over-plan whom you’ll talk to — often the best conversations are the ones we have no idea we’re going to have — but you need to know what you’re getting into. Think about this in two ways: knowing whom you’re talking to and what you want.
You need to have an idea of whom (at least generally) you’ll be talking to. Look at the guest list or the speaker panel and learn a little bit about the people who interest you most. This isn’t LinkedIn stalking, but it’s always nice if you can bring up something you know about the other person. Did they contribute something really interesting to research you love? Maybe they gave a talk last year that you can watch in advance. Anything you can do to pinpoint whom you want to talk to and get to know them in advance will take some pressure off of you when you get there.
But you’ve also got to know yourself. That means knowing your strengths and your goals. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t get very far. You don’t have to have a specific goal, like landing a job or making a new best friend. But you should spend some time thinking about why building these relationships matters to you, and how having these people in your corner will help. That means you’ve also got to know your own strengths, because at a networking event other people might not have the chance to seek them out. Be confident in yourself and in what you have to offer — know that you are capable and great at what you do!
The second part of doing your homework comes after the event. A networking event is just the beginning, and if you’d like to build impactful professional relationships, you’re going to have to put in the work. Remember the people you’ve met, and if you get contact information for them, reach out after the event. You don’t need to ask them for anything — in fact, you usually shouldn’t, unless they’ve promised you a particular resource — simply thank them for talking to you.
Remind them of something you talked about or what you’re interested in long-term, and suggest some kind of follow-up if it feels appropriate. This is the number-one most important thing you can do to set yourself out — and to move toward a good relationship. And it makes all the difference in the world – a 2017 TopResume survey revealed that 68 percent of recruiters and hiring managers said whether or not they receive a thank you note after an interview plays a role in whether that person gets the job.
But it’s not just the job phase where follow-ups matter — so do your research, circle back to make a connection, and give that strong impression a chance to turn into a relationship.
3. Build a relationship – not a rolodex
You have two choices when you go to a networking event. You can go wide: getting your business card in as many people’s hands as possible. Or you can go deep: focus on creating a few meaningful relationships.
If you give your business card to everyone, chances are you won’t have time to really get to know anyone. You’re more likely to spend your 30 seconds with each person trying to make sure they know your name and the best thing about you — and you might not even remember whom you’ve spoken to. This can make you feel lost or like you wasted your time.
Truthfully, I’ve never followed up on a single business card I’ve received in this manner. When I worked as an executive assistant, the most my boss would do with the many cards she got at events like this was have me add them to her contact book, where they’d sit with hundreds of others she may or may not ever contact. It was great if we ever needed to reach out to someone, but it wasn’t the start of something meaningful.
On the other hand, when you focus on making a few meaningful relationships, you’re getting to know a person and they’re getting to know you. It’s not about getting something immediate, like landing a job or another promise. But you’ll create a team for yourself and take a step to surround yourself with the people who will support you with advice, guidance, and yes, maybe even a job at some point. It’s a process that takes patience and hard work, but you’ll find yourself in a much better position in the long term if you’re willing to listen, make friends and colleagues, and become part of something bigger than you.
An academic study on networking revealed that young, entry-level professionals are more likely to feel “dirty” or otherwise gross after networking professionally. But when they’re reaching out to make connections and garner better friendships, that feeling goes away. So when you make meaningful connections, you’re not just improving your likelihood of a job, you’re also making it a better experience for yourself.
4. Bonus tip: know your limits, and reward yourself
At the end of the night, if you’re anything like me, you will be straight-up exhausted. Being an introvert means even when I’ve done all my homework and psyched myself up, I’m going to be worn out (and I’ll probably start to get cranky). So I’ve learned to set and follow limits for myself, to recognize the signs of when I’m wearing thin, and allow myself an out when that happens. I want to be my best self when I’m creating new relationships, and that means not going at it too hard or pushing myself beyond what’s reasonable.
And when I hit my limit, and need to be in my own space, I find it’s helpful to reward myself. Maybe it’s ice cream, or a splurge I wouldn’t usually make — either way, treating myself for putting in good work helps me unwind while also acknowledging the hard work I’ve put in.
So take a moment, treat yourself, enjoy the experience, and then get back to work.