About a year ago, I went to a networking night for media professionals, hosted by my alma mater.
I said hello to a few people I recognized, sat through the presentations without asking any questions, and as soon as they were over, made a beeline for the door.
Rest assured, that’s not the way I normally behave at networking events. Normally, I don’t go to those events at all.
Judging by the number of Quora and Reddit threads on the topic, it seems like I’m in good company – a lot of people think networking is awkward, and/or gross, and/or generally useless.
But the key, according to the people who’ve posted on these threads, is finding a way to make networking work for you.
If you don’t relish the idea of handing out business cards, or having 60-second conversations with 60 different people in a single night, or asking for favors outright, you don’t have to. There are other ways to find jobs and learn more about your industry.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best networking advice out there – advice that few people are quite skilled or confident enough to be able to ignore.
1. Leverage your existing connections
Networking tends to be associated with meeting new people. But that’s not always the most effective strategy.
On Quora, Nelson Wang writes: “Realize that some of your best connections are existing ones. Reconnecting with your existing network is incredibly powerful because you already have a relationship with them.”
As Steve Cadigan, former VP of Talent at LinkedIn, told Business Insider’s Aine Cain, cultivating your current connections is often the best approach.
“It could be your tennis coach. It could be your history professor. It could be your senior thesis adviser. It could be so many people,” he said. It could even be your college classmates – so keep in touch with them.
“You’ve got to start somewhere.”
2. You can start small
Cut yourself some slack. Redditor cjerrells writes:
“Don’t feel like you should be an amazing networker overnight.
“Instead, attend your next event saying ‘I’m going to introduce myself to *one** person’*. Then, the one after, you aim for two.”
3. Offer to help people
“Find ways to add value to others without expecting anything in return,” Mike Fishbein writes on Quora. “When you do something for someone else that helps them in some way, they naturally want to reciprocate.”
Scientists call it the “rule for reciprocation.” As psychologist Robert Cialdini writes in his book “Pre-Suasion,” “People say yes to those they owe.” So if you want someone’s help, consider doing something useful for them first – like introducing them via email to a potential business partner.
Dave Kerpen, founder and CEO of social-media software company Likeable Local, says the best question to ask when you meet an influential person is, “How can I help you?”
Obviously, you should really be in a position to assist the person. But even if they don’t take you up on your offer, they’ll probably feel warmer to you for having asked.
4. Talk about something other than work
Maybe you don’t feel comfortable asking directly how you can help your new acquaintances. That’s fine.
Still, “do have a good selling point about yourself, like a relatively unusual hobby or something, to talk about,” Shweta Karwa writes on Quora.
Maybe you have a side gig selling artwork on Etsy, or maybe you volunteer at an elementary school. It’s probably not something your conversation partner does, or even knows much about.
“It really makes for good conversations,” Karwa writes. “You are probably adding value to their knowledge base, and it might be something they might get interested in. Win-win on both sides.”
5. Ask a lot of questions
That’s a suggestion from Micha Kaufman on Quora.
He writes: “People love talking about themselves. Asking lots of questions both implies that you’re very interested in them and gives you crucial information.”
Dale Carnegie said much the same thing back in his 1936 bestseller, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” One of his secrets to making people like you is simply to listen and encourage other people to talk about themselves.
It takes some of the pressure off you, too – instead of trying to describe your job as the most exciting thing in the world, you can talk in terms of the other person’s interests and make them feel important.
- Flickr/Ant PDX
6. Review what is – and isn’t – working
On Reddit, dankness recommends asking your conversation partner a lot of questions – and not stopping there.
“Review your questions. What worked? What didn’t? Did you find a question that lead [sic] you into awkward silences? Did you find that some people were able to relate better to other questions?
“If you have to do a LOT of these networking events, keep 1 or 2 questions and change a few others up. Again, hone this craft and keep trying new things.”
The same strategy applies to networking more generally. Are you getting responses to cold emails? Are people freaked out when you ask them right away what their spirit animal is? Is the bright orange tie a good conversation piece?
Approach the whole thing analytically and you’ll have a better shot at success in the future.
New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg used a similar strategy when he started as the Times’ senior editor of live journalism, responsible for coordinating conferences.
He didn’t particularly like schmoozing and experimented with different goals – first, having a 20-minute conversation with one person, next having multiple conversations in quick succession, and finally, talking to four people in the first 10 minutes and then going back to the person he liked most.
“Gamify” your networking experience and set a concrete objective for yourself.
7. Follow up regularly
“Follow-up isn’t supposed to mean a one-time email that reads ‘Connecting – Me from XYZ’,” Utkarsh Sinha writes on Quora. “Building a network is for [a] lifetime.”
He recommends sending the occasional email in which you share an article that’s relevant to the person’s interests, for example. You can even ask them for advice on a topic they’re knowledgeable about and you’re not.
The idea is to keep the conversation going.
8. Network all the time
You might not meet your future business partner on your commute home – but talking to a fellow passenger is definitely good practice for more formal networking events.
Then again, they might become your future business partner, after all.
Greg Muender writes on Quora:
“Stop thinking of ‘networking’ as [its] own independent entity. Life is networking.
“Some of the most meaningful relationships, friendships, and partnerships I have ever made have started with an encounter on a plane, at the dog park, on the subway, etc.
“Don’t [confine] networking into a binary thing where you are either in ‘networking’ mode or you are not. Introduce yourself to the guy sitting next to you on the bench. Say ‘hi’ to your neighbor.”