I used to be afraid of networking. As an avowed introvert with a moderate case of shyness, too often I would pass up opportunities to meet and connect with people. Much later in life I would discover that networking was an acquired skill and was well within my reach. I let go of my fear of rejection when I realized that networking was not about me, but was about building relationships and finding ways to be helpful to others. I can do that. You can too.
Networking, at its essence, is the simple but profound activity of creating, freshening and strengthening an array of mutually beneficial professional relationships with a diverse cross-section of people. Here are a few tips that will help you up your game, especially when meeting people at events or in large groups.
Prepare Your Introduction
When someone asks, “What do you do?” for goodness sake, don’t just tell them what you do. Come prepared to respond with a couple of sentences that will give people a sense of who you are and the impact you aspire to have on the world. Most importantly, assume that their intentions, like yours, are to be helpful and give them something to work with. For example, don’t recite your job title, tell them the kind of people you work with and the ways in which you help them. Try sharing something that you are working on — at home, work or in your career. Good networkers will be intrigued and will try to respond in a helpful way.
Honor Your Personal Preferences
Play to your strengths. Introverts and extraverts should network very differently. At events, for example, it’s natural for extraverts to gravitate to the center of the room, dancing in and out of conversations along the way. This is how extraverts get their bearings and find their energy. It’s no less natural, however, for an introvert to plant themselves near the outside of the room and observe: not paralyzed, but confident; not fearful, but curious. This is how introverts get theirbearings and find their energy.
Don’t push yourself to the center of the room unless you are inclined to do so. People will find you where you are. Step out to a less hectic place if the room is too noisy to hold a conversation. On more than one occasion I have retreated to a quiet lobby from a busy conference hall only to have a small cadre of like-minded networkers follow suit. The calmer environment made for much more productive networking.
Watch the Body Language
Not only do individuals tell a story with their body language — arms crossed, shoulders slouched, for example — but groups of people do as well. When you are looking for a conversation to join, read the signals of the group before inserting yourself. For example, when two people are standing face to face, directly across from each other, they are engaged in a closed conversation. Interruptions are not recommended here. Instead, look for two people standing in a ‘V’ formation. The open arrangement of their feet is a subconscious signal that new members are welcome in the conversation.
Similarly, a group of three or more people standing in a closed circle is not open to new members. Look for groups in a ‘U’ shape with an opening at one end. That opening is for you. Feel free to step up and join in.
Ask Good Questions
Show empathy and ask interesting questions. Instead of asking people what they do — an actual dud of a question — try asking, “What are you working on?” This is a wonderful, open-ended question that invites both parties to lean in. It can elicit responses ranging from the trivial to the sublime. As they answer, rack your brain for information, favors or introductions that may be helpful.
Extend a Hand
Shaking hands is an important ritual in America and other western cultures. Lean in to a handshake when meeting someone (“It’s very nice to meet you”) and again as you part (“It has been a pleasure talking with you”).
Keep at least one hand free. Avoid the temptation to laden yourself down with all manner of food and beverage, napkins, notebooks, handouts and handbags. If food or beverages are involved, carry them in your left hand, leaving your right hand free for handshakes and the exchange of business cards.
Follow-up is essential to building good relationships. When speaking with someone, make a special effort to remember names, dates and points of interest. Make notes to yourself as soon as it’s convenient and update your address book when you get back to your desk. Then, send emails, pass on any articles or information and offer to make introductions that seem appropriate or compelling.
Before I Go
An active network is a tremendous asset, the lifeblood of any vibrant career. It’s also uniquely yours, something you carry with you throughout your life. The secret to being a good networker is to embrace it with a spirit of helpfulness: it’s not so much about meeting people as it’s about the creating and freshening of connections, and it’s not focused on getting something, but rather the constant exchange of favors and information.
I wish you success.
Heather Hollick, leadership, career, team and life coach. Heather is on a mission to make the world a better place to work, and has a knack for helping both introverts and extraverts find their voices and make an impact. She is the author of the upcoming book, What Are You Working On? — A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking. You can learn more about Heather at: HeatherHollick.com.