How do we make real connections when we network?
I can still remember the first few networking events I ever attended, when I was new to the Capital Region and to the working world. I don’t think of myself as a particularly timid person, but walking into rooms filled with professionals who seemed to have this “networking” thing down pat, it’s safe to say I was less than confident.
I shook plenty of hands and exchanged plenty of business cards, but not many of those early interactions turned into any sort of strong connection. Looking back, I was pretty clueless — not only about how to network, but about what the point of networking even was.
Networking is defined as “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.” So…okay, I was interacting with others, exchanging information, and building up my Rolodex, but what was supposed to come next?
It took me a while to figure that out, and I’m sure the answer is not the same for everyone. But for me, the whole point of networking is not to see how many business cards I can collect or how many LinkedIn connections I can make. (In truth, I hate business cards!!) It’s to find people with whom I might share some common interests, ideas, or passions, in the hopes that we might develop a real connection over time.
As I was thinking about this subject, I stumbled across an article that captured my feelings almost perfectly. I can’t say I even realized I was doing this, but over the years, I’ve come to take a very similar approach to what’s described here:
Even at what would be considered “networking events,” I began to chat with people without considering whether or not they would be able to help me or further my career in the future. I strived to have really great, sincere conversations with people, rather than talking to as many people as I could. Sometimes conversations were heavily career-focused and that was okay, but I also connected with others on college experiences, favorite recipes, funny memes, and more. That change in perspective made “networking” so much easier and so much more fun.LULU XIAO OF CAREER CONTESSA
I can honestly say that I look forward to networking now, because I’ve learned how to do it in a way that works for me. I’m by no means an expert, but when it comes to developing connections, here are a few tips that have worked for me…
Listen first, speak second.
I used to go into my networking interactions thinking first and foremost about my “elevator pitch.” What did I want other people to know about me, and how was I going to get that across? While I still think it’s important to have a sense of what you might want to say about yourself, I think it’s vastly more important to listen and let conversations flow naturally. I’ve realized that when I’m focused on listening (instead of thinking about what I’m going to say next) I remember a LOT more about the person I’m listening to. And the more I remember, the easier it is to strike up a conversation the next time I see that person out and about.
Find a common interest.
If you start with listening, it’s not too hard to find something in common with your new connection. I’ve hit it off with people over everything from college sports, to favorite books and TV shows, to a near-crazy obsession with my dog. An important thing to note here – your common interest doesn’t have to have anything to do with your job! There’s nothing like discovering someone else loves something you love to form the beginning of a beautiful professional relationship.
Sink your teeth into something.
One of my favorites things about networking now is that, most of the time, I do it in groups that I really love being a part of. Take, for example, the Women’s Business Council (obviously). I still meet new people at almost every WBC event I attend, but because I’ve really embraced my membership in this fabulous group, I feel infinitely more comfortable entering the networking scene. When I introduce myself to someone at a WBC event, I already know we have at least one common interest (promoting and supporting women in business!) and the conversation flows easily from there. This isn’t to say that anyone should ever close themselves off to new groups or experiences, but if you’re really passionate about something, go all in. New connections with other passionate people are sure to blossom!
This is probably the advice I have the most difficulty following, but it’s also perhaps the most important. It’s incredibly easy to leave a networking event and immediately get swept up in the hustle and bustle of work and life. I’m always exceedingly impressed by the people who send follow up emails just to say hello after we’ve exchanged business cards. I’ll admit, I never do this, and I probably never will, but we all have to find what works for us. For me, it’s goes back to listening and discovering those common interests. If I come across an article or an upcoming event that relates to something I recently discussed with a new connection, I can pass that along to keep the conversation going. If we bonded over a favorite TV show, I can reach out to ask for an opinion on the latest episode. And of course, we can connect on social media to continue sharing interesting things with one another on a regular basis.
As I said, I’m certainly not an expert on how to succeed at networking, but I have learned to like it a lot more just by shifting my perspective. This blog is a place for many voices, so please share your own tips in the comments below!