Does the thought of networking send shivers down your spine? Does it remind you of your first day at a new school where groups of people played happily together and you didn’t know anybody? Or does it conjure up images of sleazy politicians back slapping each other in order to progress? No? That’s how I felt about networking until very recently.
Whether you like it or loathe it, networking is a useful skill to master in almost all careers. Networking internally can help you get resources, expertise or knowledge that you wouldn’t have access to if you stuck to your own team or department. When job hunting, the networking skills of knocking on the door of an employer and asking everyone you know for job leads are significantly more successful than sending resumes to potential employers.
If you haven’t mastered the art of networking yet, here are some simple dos and don’ts to get you started.
Don’t treat it like a speed dating event. Think quality not quantity. There’s no point in collecting 20 business cards, putting them into your wallet and then throwing them out a month later. Instead focus on making a few meaningful connections by having an engaging conversation with a small number of people.
Don’t undermine yourself with your language. This includes verbal and non-verbal language. When I meet people at events and they respond to the inevitable ‘What do you do?’ question with ‘I’m just a teacher’, this screams volumes to me about the pride they take in their work. You are not ‘just’ an anything. Have a confident introduction that makes the other person want to find out more about you.
Watch your body language too. Don’t be arrogant or submissive. Arrogant, aggressive people talk too much, shake hands violently and brag about themselves. Submissive people shake hands limply, shrink into the background and avoid eye contact. Be confident: stand tall with your shoulders back and head up, smile and make appropriate eye contact with the person you are talking to (as a tip, in a normal conversation between two people, they look directly into each others eyes about 30% of the time).
Don’t try a hard sell. You have been dying to get a promotion for months now. The crowd parts, the room brightens and you see the key decision maker at the top of the room. Be cool! Don’t jump over chairs and leave bodies in your wake to get to talk to her. And when you do get a chance to speak, don’t be pushy or oversell yourself. Remember, she is not there to interview you, and being pushy will probably just create a bad impression (which is significantly more lasting than a good impression by the way!). Follow the do’s below, make a great impression, and when you meet or email her next you can reference ‘I met you a few weeks ago at the EF event in Shanghai.’
Don’t be sloppy OK so this kind of goes without saying but because I’ve seen it, I’m going to say it. Really, don’t be sloppy. If there is alcohol being served, don’t get drunk. If you are eating food, don’t eat messy food with your handshaking hand. Don’t be loud. Don’t tell inappropriate jokes. And don’t insult the organizers.
Now that you know what to avoid, here are some strategies to effectively network.
Find something in common with the person. The quickest way to build rapport with someone is to find similarities. Talk about your work, living in China, your experience of the event you are at. If you are in the same room, you have something in common. Find common ground and talk about it.
Have a succinct introduction. Be able to briefly explain what you do and who you work for. Practice saying this a few times with a colleague if it helps to make you sound more natural.
Listen more than you talk. This takes the pressure off you a bit. Being really listened to is a rare occurrence. When it happens, we feel connected to the person that listened. Ask good questions but don’t interrogate. Be curious about what others have done and their experience and be willing to share a little bit of yours if the opportunity arises.
Give before you ask. Like the advice about avoiding the hard sell, don’t ask a stranger for a favour. That’s too easy to say no to. If you are treating this as an opportunity to get what you can from anybody you speak to, you will put people off and fail to build the connection. Instead, think about what you can do for the person you are speaking to. Do you have a connection that would be useful to their new project? Did you read an article recently that you think you might be interesting to them? Think about what you can do for the person you are talking to and if you commit to something, follow through.
Be yourself. And of course, be yourself (unless you are an arrogant, sloppy, pushy person in which case maybe work on that)! Making meaningful connections means being authentic and connecting with people that we would like to work, socialize or do business with. If you are both pretending to be something that you’re not, the connection will not be genuine and will unlikely lead to any long term benefits for either of you.
Remember, like all other professional skills, it takes practice. Try different techniques, reflect on your successes and practice, practice, practice. Eventually it will be natural for you and could even be something you really enjoy.