Everyone says you should “network” in order to find a new job or advance your career. But ugh, even thinking about how you “should be networking” makes you picture boring corporate bars, name-tags, and awkwardly standing in the corner looking at Instagram and wondering how long you need to stay for it to “count.”
All the experts (and your parents) agree that “professional networking” is important, but no one has explained exactly why beyond weak platitudes like it’s “who you know.” Are they right? Is it important? If so, why is it so painful and awkward? How can you make professional networking less mechanical, and more personal? How can you make it something you look forward to instead of something you dread? How can you squeeze the most authentic connections out of the fewest hours of your very limited time?
1. What’s your purpose?
First thing’s first, what’s your goal? The “shoulds” are an insufficient reason to spend your Tuesday night schmoozing. Are you looking for a new job? Are you looking to meet people in your field from whom you can get professional advice? Are you trying to learn a new skill or break into a new industry? Spend a few minutes identifying your intention before you decide to go to a professional networking event.
2. Choose wisely
Before throwing a dart at the latest Meetup group or random EventBrite, revisit your purpose. For skill building, consider taking a workshop or enrolling in a part-time course (that counts as professional networking too!) Looking for a new job? There are job fairs and hiring mixers designed for that specific purpose. Want to meet people in your field? You can join a recurring group that meets regularly so you can develop relationships with a cadre of peers. In the beginning, it’s okay to cast a wide net and try a few different groups or event types to see which vibe suits your needs.
Pro Tip: The internet is your friend for professional event finding! Try Meetup.com, EventBrite, Facebook, and local resources (like Gary’s Guide in NYC, Built in Chicago, 365 Austin, etc.) Sign up for notifications so events come straight to your inbox.
3. If you hate it, don’t do it
Choose professional networking events and activities that you think you will like. If you are dragging yourself to meetups that are things you’re “supposed” to go to, you will not bring your A-game. If you attend workshops or events that you’re excited about, you will be your best self. You want to convey to people that you meet that you’re a maker not a taker. If you find yourself at a professional event and you’re not able to put your best foot forward, it’s probably not a good fit nor a good use of your time.
4. But what do I do with my hands?
Let’s say you actually find a few professional events that catch your fancy and you show up. You fill out your nametag and load up on the free snacks… now what? Keep in mind that most people attending these events are in the same boat as you. They are looking to learn, meet new people, and make connections, and they also feel awkward.
- Strategy 1: “May I share your table?” People are more welcoming than you think! Ask to share a table or sit in an empty seat. This basic logistical question can open the conversational door.
- Strategy 2: Start with easy, open-ended questions. “Have you ever attended this event before?” “What are you working on?” and “What did you think of the presentation/event/workshop/cheese plate?” are good openers that lead to better conversations than the one-word-answer-inducing “Where do you work?”
- Strategy 3: Ask for the lay of the land. People love feeling knowledgeable and useful! Introduce yourself and say “I’m new to this group, just trying to get the lay of the land and learn what’s what.” By inviting people to tell you what’s up… they’ll tell you what’s up!
Pro tip: Bring a buddy for accountability, but then manually separate yourselves. Spend 15 minutes on opposite sides of the room, each challenging the other to meet someone new. When you reconvene, you may have doubled your efforts. Introduce each other to the person you just met.
5. The art of the follow-up
If you meet a handful of folks, and you weed out the duds, you are you left with one or two people that you’d like to stay in touch with. Based on the conversation you had, ask to follow up with specifics. “Hey, it was great to meet you! Mind if I follow-up with you about that freelance project you mentioned?..that Forbes article you mentioned?...that podcast you mentioned?”
Pro tip: If people don’t carry cards (and many folks don’t) it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for an email address and jot it down. You can also say, “Is it cool if I find you on LinkedIn to follow-up?”
6. Now you actually have to do it
Follow up! Send a short email that does the following: a) reminds your new friend where you met, b) reminds them who you are, c) thanks them for their time, d) takes a specific next step. For example:
(a) It was great to meet you at the Employee Engagement meetup last week! (b) I really enjoyed speaking with you about how your company has handled bi-coastal offices; we have the same issue! (c) Thanks for sharing that culture podcast, I’ve already listened to three episodes. (d) I’d love to keep the conversation going, are you free next week on Thursday or Friday morning for coffee?
7. Quality over quantity
Remember that every person you meet doesn’t have to turn into a “networking contact.” Sometimes you meet folks that don’t have much in common with you or with whom you just don’t conversationally click. You are under no obligation to take every business card, follow up with each new person, or get coffee with everyone who asks. Your time is valuable! Better to connect with one or two people you genuinely like than build a towering stack of business cards from people you barely remember.
8. I’m an introvert, professional networking sounds like too much
That’s fine! Here are a few ideas to keep professional networking manageable.
- Option 1: Scale back. Pick one event a month (or whatever level seems appropriate for you) as a goal.
- Option 2: Slowly grow your network one person at a time. If social events with big crowds really aren’t working for you, switch tactics. Make a list of people in your professional circle you’d like to get to know better. They can be folks at your organization, or that you’ve met at conferences, or that create content you like online. Set a goal for one-on-one coffees and reach out to them one at a time with a specific ask. For example, you admired a Medium post they wrote about X topic and you’d love to buy them a coffee and talk about it.
- Option 3: Consider online, asynchronous professional networking. There are Facebook groups, Twitter chats, and Slack channels for every profession under the sun. Ask around and find out where your peers are online. The great thing about these kinds of groups is you can dip in when you have a question or want to see what’s new in your field, but you don’t have to be “on” in person. If someone makes a great comment, or asks a question you know the answer to, you can always follow-up offline.
In general, if you slowly build a community of people who you professionally respect and have solid relationships with, you’ll start to see opportunities come your way. You will get invited to events, you’ll be notified about open positions, you’ll catch the latest trends in your industry. So yes, as your parents say, in some ways it is “who you know,” but that doesn’t mean you need to put on a shiny suit and glad-hand your way around town. Instead, invest in a smaller number of organizations and people, and strengthen the relationships that bring you joy, stimulating conversation, and great new ideas.
Photography by Shanley Kellis and Winston Struye