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If you’re looking for a career boost, there’s no getting around it. You need to network. Studies suggest we may be ten times more likely to win the job we want when our application is accompanied by a referral. And there’s no better way to get that coveted referral at another company than by building your network.
So if talking to strangers is your idea of a nightmare evening, here are our top tips to make networking less like hard work:
1. Get online
Networking doesn’t have to mean standing around drinking lukewarm wine in a conference room. Following thought leaders in your industry on Twitter is networking. Replying to LinkedIn posts with thoughtful comments is networking. Tagging a friend or colleague when you spot any opportunity that’s right for them? You guessed it, it’s all real networking. The key is to be specific, sincere and thoughtful in how you relate to people online. Just hitting the autocomplete “congrats on your new role!” every once in a while won’t cut it.
2. Ask questions and listen deeply to the answers
"Ask questions and share what you are working on - natural conversation will happen” says Elliott Davidson, Founder and Director of Contrast Digital. By asking questions you’re showing the other person that you find them interesting and you’re ready to offer them your most precious resource: your time. If the conversation falters, sharing what you are working on is a great way to find common interests, areas of debate, or simply to learn about new trends and developments in your industry.
Asking other people questions is one half of conversational ping-pong, but if you don’t listen thoughtfully to the answers then the other person will leave feeling seriously disgruntled. Instead, try listening with your whole self. Don’t mentally plan your next answer, or how you can bring the conversation back to yourself, simply give the other person your full attention and see how the mood changes. “I started listening more thoughtfully after I became mental health first aider at my work, and I’ve noticed it really changes the way I relate to other people” says Amanda. “At first, it felt strange because it means I’m a little slower to respond. But the difference is that now when I reply, it’s based on a deep understanding of what the other person just said to me, instead of listening with just half my focus.”
3. Small talk doesn’t need to mean big stress
If small talk is your idea of hell, it pays to practice. “I find small talk difficult as I have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD)” says Hannah Butcher, Director of Belong Digital. “This year I have started taking beginner language lessons with Tutorful. I have a Spanish lesson this week! It makes me feel much more confident that I can speak with any person I meet, even if we're from different countries.”
4. Network before the event
If you’re going to an in-person event, get connected before you’re in the room. As Hannah Butcher says: “I am an introvert but need to attend a lot of events in the digital marketing industry. I have found that connecting with people online first makes the world of difference.”
By meeting people online first, you give yourself the time and space you need to prepare your thoughts, you can go to the event feeling a deeper sense of calm and connection. Equally, if the event you’re going to has a public attendee list, check if you already know anyone who’s attending. Sending them a message first can help you feel you’re walking into the room with an ally.
5. Go where your peers are
If there isn’t a formal association for people working in your sector – like The Chartered Institute of Public Relations – you can bet there is an informal one – like a Facebook, LinkedIn or MeetUp group, a mailing list or a core group of Twitter users all active on the same hashtags.
If a formal group exists, sign up, attend regular meetings and make an effort to introduce yourself to at least one person each time you go. You can use the Directory of Associations to find the one that fits your work best.
If it doesn’t exist, why not ask your colleagues who they’re following on social media, how they connect with their peers, and what events, groups or conferences are key to keeping them up to date with their industry? If it doesn’t exist, could you consider founding one? Team up with others to spread the work, and feel free to take a less outward-facing role. By helping to bring people together – even if you’re sending out the emails but rarely at the welcome desk - you could end up building your network exponentially.
6. Help others out
Networking doesn’t have to mean exchanging business cards. Helping somebody else out can cement your relationship, make them see you more favourably, and give you that rewarding buzz it. It could be something as simple as sharing their job adverts whenever they’re trying to recruit, answering a quick survey, or offering to put in a good word for them with another peer.
7. Maintain loose touch connections
Who has the time to attend endless events, or spend hours each day writing thoughtful emails to former colleagues? Try keeping up loose touch connections instead, says Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count.
Loose touch connections are quick social media posts, texts or micro catch-ups with people who you’ve crossed paths with before. “Just spending 10 minutes a day on loose touch can keep you connected with a lot of people. This small amount of effort can have a much bigger payoff, in good feelings if not in eventual outcomes” says Karen. “I usually do it in the mornings because my pre-work ritual of checking email and my news feeds is how I limber up for the day. As I scan the headlines, I’ll share a story or two that I know are of interest to people I know, along with a short note: “This made me think of you. What’s your take? And how are you?”
8. Create an action plan
Perhaps you just want to speak to one new person, or perhaps you want to discuss a specific topic with someone you know can help you in the future. Whatever your goal is, agree it with yourself in advance.
You could even adopt a networking strategy, like Micah Baldwin’s. He segments the room into a few groups: people he wants to talk to, people he’s already friends with and people he doesn’t want to talk to. Then he aims to meet new connections by asking his existing contacts to introduce him to the people he wants to meet. Your action plan can also help you re-frame how you see networking. If you’re telling yourself it’s your worst nightmare, it will be hard to get out the door to go there. So try using a positive mantra to focus on what you do like, such as: “I love meeting new people”, I am excited to learn new things”, “I’m showing up for myself and my career, and I’m proud of myself.”
As Adam Grant explains in his book Originals, changing the way you feel about something can change how well you do it. His research found that when people told themselves that they were excited about public speaking, their delivery was better than when they had told themselves that they were nervous. By recontextualising your feelings, you can move networking out of your fear zone and into your comfort zone.
9. Manage your energy
While extroverts may be happy to bounce straight from work to a networking event, out for drinks and then to a party, most introverts will be cringing at the thought of so much social stimulation. Honour your energy levels, and recognise that being around a lot of people can be seriously draining. Rest up before the event, make sure you’re hydrated and have eaten a nourishing meal. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, and plan a soothing reward for yourself when you get back from the event. You’ve earned it.
10 Quality, not quantity
Getting a hundred new LinkedIn connections or fifty new business cards might sound like an achievement, but they’re only worth as much as your next steps. If you are honest about your career goals, self-aware about kinds of skills and connections you need to develop, clear about who you want to connect with, and conscientious about keeping those loose-touch connections going, then you can forget about counting up connections. So remember to choose wisely and stay in touch afterwards. A connection you meet once and then never speak to again? Not much of a connection.