You need to network.
Has your mouth turned dry and chalky at the very mention of the task? Are your palms sweaty at the mere thought of heading into a room full of strangers to introduce yourself?
Well, I have news for you: Pretty much everybody thinks networking is painfully awkward.
I get it—needing to paste on a nametag and make small talk about how bad the free wine tastes is cringe-worthy at best. But, here’s the thing: Networking doesn’t have to be this awful. In fact, most of us hate it because we approach it with the totally wrong perspective. That's why you need some networking tips!
Why is networking important?
“In the early part of my career, I thought networking was totally smarmy and unsavory,” explains Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow and Creator and Host of The TalentGrow Show podcast, “I tried to avoid it as much as I could, because I didn’t really understand what networking was and how to do it properly.”
“But, now I understand that when you define networking as simply building and maintaining mutually-beneficial long-term relationships with others, it’s an important part of professional life and I wish I had started practicing it sooner,” she adds.
Building your connections can provide you with invaluable opportunities to exchange information, get advice from experienced peers, and in many cases achieve your career goals. And as Azulay says above, networking is meant to be mutually beneficial—you may have the rewarding experience of contributing to a connection’s success in return.
Alright, so networking is important. However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to shake all of your preconceived notions and do it in a way that’s effective. Fortunately, we’re here to help.
Whether you’re heading to a designated networking event (nametags, appetizers, and all), a seminar, conference, luncheon, or really anywhere else that you’ll be interacting with fellow professionals, we talked to tons of different people to get the lowdown on how you can make your networking efforts far more productive—and way less groan-inducing.
Getting prepped and ready: 4 Networking tips to use before you shake any hands
Think you can just stumble into a room full of people and make the most of it? Think again.
The best networkers know that there’s some work involved in order to be prepared to make a positive impression and walk away with a few meaningful connections.
1. Prepare (but don’t over-rehearse) your elevator pitch
You’ve probably been told time and time again about the importance of having a polished elevator pitch (put simply, a concise explanation of your skills and work experience) in your back pocket.
When you’re networking, you should be prepared to summarize what you do and the value that it provides. But, that’s really it—nobody wants to listen to you ramble through paragraphs of your entire professional history.
“You should not be ‘reeling off’ your elevator pitch at a cocktail party. Especially one that sounds like you rehearsed it in the mirror beforehand,” warns Abbey Woodcock, a copywriter, “Most elevator pitch templates are awful. They are filled with buzzwords and confusing phrases because people are scared to just answer the question, ‘What do you do?’ in an honest way.”
“My answer? ‘I’m a copywriter that helps people outsource their voice,’” she adds, “You don’t have to go further than that. If you do, people will start to tune out.”
So, before you head into the event, have a short and clear answer to these two questions:
- What do you do?
- Why does it matter?
You’ll be able to make an impactful introduction, without stressing out about memorizing details and punchlines.
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2. Pack plenty of business cards
This next one is an easy one. “Make sure you bring plenty of business cards,” warns Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, RPT.
There’s nothing worse than needing to scribble your contact information on a cocktail napkin, so come prepared with way more business cards than you’ll think you’ll need. You’d rather have way too many than not enough!
3. Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements
Feeling nervous to head into a networking event alone? It might be time to phone a friend.
“Find a buddy to go to the event with so you can work the room together,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, “It makes it much more comfortable and fun.”
4. Have a (loose) plan
Having some sort of strategy in place can help you feel a little more confident.
“Create a few goals you want to achieve during each networking exchange,” explains Samary Agosto-Polnett, Psychotherapist, Coach, and Co-facilitator of a local networking group, Network to Net-Worth, “This will assist you in staying focused and on-task.”
One important thing to note: Be forgiving with the networking goals you set for yourself. Rather than putting pressure on yourself to walk away from that event with so many leads, set an objective of talking to at least three people.
Not only will that set you up to be far more genuine (and less salesy!) during the event, but you also won’t feel so much pressure to bounce around the room every five minutes in favor of pitching as many people as possible.
The big event: 8 Networking tips for the heat of the moment
It’s here—you’re about to step into that intimidating room of strangers. Now what?
Here are a few key things to remember when it’s actually time to put out your hand, smile, and introduce yourself.
1. Give yourself a quick pep talk
The nerves really start to kick in right before you set foot into that networking function, which makes it a great time to run through a mental checklist for some self-assurance.
“I developed an ‘Attitude Checklist’ that I review before attending,” says Keith McHugh, Owner of Painted Rock Enterprises LLC, “I make sure I’m smiling, that I take responsibility for taking the initiative to meet people, remember that it is not always important for me to talk about me, and other reminders (eight or nine total) so that I have the right mindset when attending a networking event.”
Come up with a brief network checklist of your own to walk through before you actually start networking. Knowing you have your ducks in a row will give you a much-needed confidence boost.
2. Focus on quality over quantity
It’s tempting to put a lot of pressure on yourself to approach everybody, but the old adage about focusing on quality over quantity really applies here.
“Don’t expect to meet everyone. The goal is to have five good conversations, even if none of those lead to a follow-up opportunity,” says Danny Groner, Director of Growth PR at Aaptiv.
“You don’t always have to ‘work the room’ and chat to everybody there,” adds Elise Dopson, B2B Content Writer, “I wish I realized sooner that it’s better to make one strong connection than five that fall flat.”
3. Don’t be afraid of small talk
Traditional networking advice will talk about the torture of small talk and how you should do your best to avoid mindlessly chatting about the weather or the event itself. However, there’s nothing wrong with small talk—and trying so hard to skip past it will only make you that much more nervous.
“Small talk is important. It’s how we as humans get a feel for each other and you can’t shortcut it,” says Woodcock, “We can find out quickly, are they enthusiastic? Funny? Shy?”
“Jumping right into, ‘What’s your most formative childhood experience?’ sometimes leads to amazing conversation, but also completely shuts down a large subset of people,” she continues, “Small talk is a subtle way to create a connection and find out what someone is about.”
Looking for an easy—and low-pressure—way to get the conversation rolling? Consider asking something like, “Have you been to this event before?” It’s easy for the other person to answer, and it starts you off on some common ground.
4. Get creative with your questions
While small talk is important, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to spend all of your conversations chatting about the seasoning on the chicken skewers from the appetizer table.
To move beyond surface topics, get creative with the questions you ask.
“Instead of asking them where they work or what they do, I try to tap into their passions,” says Fiona Adler, Founder of Actioned.com, “I’ll ask something like, ‘So, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve been working on lately?’”
5. Treat networking like a normal conversation
Know why networking often resembles a pressure cooker? Because we all head into it with such lofty expectations of ourselves and others.
“Too many people treat networking—and worse, the people they’re networking with—as a means to an end, which makes them seem inauthentic,” shares Dave Bowden, Founder of IrreverentGent, “Don’t focus on what you want to get out of the interaction. Instead, focus on leaving everyone you speak to with a positive impression of you. You’ll find it leads to much better results.”
Put simply, approach it like you would a normal conversation, and you’ll have a far more compelling (and less sleazy!) discussion. “People can smell ulterior motives a mile away,” adds Woodcock, “If you’re gearing up for a pitch, they’ll feel it. So don’t.”
6. Go beyond your job title
You know there’s one question you’re bound to be asked during any networking function: What do you do?
Conventional wisdom will direct you to respond with just your job title. But, much like we highlighted in the elevator pitch section, you should be prepared to go one step beyond that.
“I wish someone had told me that when someone asks what I do, I should tell them specifically what I do—not just my profession,” says Dr. Alex Tauberg DC, CSCS, CCSP, EMR and Owner and Chiropractor at Tauberg Chiropractic and Rehabilitation, “People have preconceived notions and biases—that is completely normal. So, when you tell them your profession, they are left to just fill in the blanks. But, when you explain what you do, there is less ambiguity.”
7. Spot the stragglers
One of the most anxiety-inducing parts of networking? Needing to march up to a group of people in order to insert yourself into their conversation.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: Look for people who aren’t already wrapped up in a different discussion.
“Anytime you’re at a networking event and people have already grouped up, start looking for stragglers on the outside,” says David Batchelor, President of DialMyCalls.com, “Usually those are the people who are just as uncomfortable at these events. Go up to them, introduce yourself, and ask what they do. They’ll be happy to talk to you and you’ll be happy to have someone to talk to.”
8. Listen more than you talk
Networking is about building a relationship—which means it isn’t just an opportunity for you to talk all about yourself.
“Move the focus away from you to the person you’re speaking to, and simply listen,” advises Victoria Lioznyansky, M.S., Entrepreneur, Speaker, and Public Speaking Coach, “So many people go to networking events to talk. I advise my clients to go to listen. It’s pure magic how much more interested other people become in you and your business when you appear genuinely interested in them.”
Bonus: Check out this video about how to appear confident with your body language
Following up: 6 Networking tips to maintain a solid connection
You did it—you made it through that networking function in one piece. But, here’s the thing: Laying the foundation for a beneficial relationship doesn’t matter if you don’t put in the effort to follow up and connect after the fact.
That’s where these tips come in. Implement them to turn those acquaintances you just met into professional contacts that you can rely on.
1. Be willing to invest in follow up
The first step is recognizing just how important your follow up is. Remember, networking is about relationships—not just introductions. And, relationships require some work and effort on your part.
“If you’re not willing to invest in at least one hour the next day to follow up with people, stay home,” says Judy Dang of Avid At Work, “Don’t go if you’re not willing to do the work afterward of keeping up the contacts.”
2. Send a LinkedIn request
If you’d rather send an email after meeting someone, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, opting to connect on LinkedIn gives you a platform to easily stay connected (and on that other person’s radar).
“Doing this immediately afterward will help you to build your network online, and they will remember who you are,” says Valerie Streif with Pramp, “Sending a thank you note—even if in an online messenger—is always appreciated.”
3. Personalize your follow-up message
Be forewarned that any ol’ follow up won’t do the trick. Stay away from the auto-filled form messages and generic language in favor of something a little more personal.
By the way, it’s smart to jot down some notes immediately after meeting someone so that you can return to those tidbits when reconnecting.
“Using the notes you’ve made, include some details they shared with you,” explains Lioznyansky, “Show again that you’ve really listened to them, and that you cared to remember.”
4. Ask open-ended questions
Once again, your goal in sending a follow-up message is to encourage the development of a continued relationship—which means you probably want a response.
The best way to do that? Use open-ended questions in your follow-up note. Flip back to the notes you took (see how important those are?) and ask something that’s more tailored to something you learned about that specific person, such as, “How is the website redesign coming along?”
Not only is that super personal, but it also gives them something to respond to beyond you just telling them that you enjoyed meeting.
5. Focus on how you can serve them
You’re human, which means you probably hope to gain something out of networking—whether it’s a valuable introduction, a helpful resource, or even a job lead.
However, networking is a two-way street, and the most successful networkers put their own selfish gains aside and instead focus on how they can use their skills and knowledge to serve others.
Your follow-up note is a great place to do this—even if it just means passing along an article you thought they’d find helpful or interesting.
“80% of people in the room are there to get something,” says Brandy Miller, Chief Executive Storyteller at 40 Day Writer LLC, “Be part of the 20% in the room that are there to serve others, and you will automatically set yourself apart.”
6. Jot a note to check in again
Even the most expertly-crafted follow-up message won’t get you far if you just check in that one time. Too many people establish these initial connections and then let those bonds fall by the wayside.
Needless to say, you don’t want to be one of those people. So, jot a note in your calendar to remind you when you should pop back into that person’s inbox again—or even ask them to lunch or coffee.
That will help you set the stage for a continued relationship, rather than just a one-time interaction.
Networking doesn’t have to be so nerve-wracking
The thought of networking might be enough to make your palms sweat and your knees quiver. But, I promise, it really doesn’t have to be so anxiety-inducing.
“What all this comes down to is acting like a person with other people,” concludes Woodcock, “Don’t make it weird. Just be human.”
Remember that sage advice and implement the tips outlined here, and you’re sure to transform yourself into a self-assured networker—without having to slam three glasses of the cheap chardonnay at the open bar.
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