If the mere thought of networking makes you want to cringe, roll your eyes, or break out in a cold sweat, know that you’re not alone.
When it comes to networking, most of us have a stereotypical image of a person in a suit and tie, shaking hands and fast-talking at a business conference. A Harvard Business School study found that, “Even when people know networking is beneficial to their careers, they often don’t do it,” according to co-author and Professor Francesca Gino.
Read on to learn how to network successfully and make the most of it!
Let’s start with what networking is, and also what it isn’t. Networking exists to connect businesses and individuals in ways that are mutually beneficial. Networking can happen at a 1,000-person conference or on a 5-person Zoom call. The common denominator is conversation related to a shared professional interest. So a meetup of UX designers counts as networking, while a meetup at the dog park likely is not.
Networking conversations are meant to be brief, like speed dating. Maybe you’ll share contact information to follow up at a later date, but there’s no pressure to talk for hours. You don’t need to make a new best friend, impress anyone with your design expertise, or speak with everyone in the room. The strongest networks are a curated list of individuals with whom you’ll develop a relationship over time.
One important distinction to remember is that networking is not a job interview. You’re not presenting a case study, going into detail about your life story, or answering questions in front of a panel. There’s no pass/fail for networking, and what works for you might not for someone else. At best, you’ll meet a few interesting people who might be able to help you in the future. At worst, you’ll figure out that a particular group or event wasn’t what you were looking for and move on.
So how can you make sure that you’re putting your best foot forward during your next networking event? Read on for a few suggestions.
Once you’ve signed up for a networking event, do some research on the speaker(s), organization, and any past events they’ve run. Oftentimes, you can see the list of attendees, so spend some time on LinkedIn to get a sense of who will be there with you. Finding commonalities can make you feel more comfortable entering a new space, and you’ll most likely see that there are other attendees who come from similar backgrounds. Chances are, the more prepared you are to have a conversation with a fellow attendee, the more likely it will be to actually happen.
Before you begin any design project, you do research, come up with a project plan, and define success. You should look to treat networking exactly the same. So, what does success look like as you head to your next networking event? If you go with a goal in mind, it will help you focus your conversations and efforts. Maybe your goal is to speak with 5 people over the course of the night. Maybe it’s to talk one-on-one with someone for 15 minutes. By having a goal in mind, you can measure your progress and strategize about how you might change things up and improve next time.
We’ve mentioned this before, but rather than trying to drum up conversations with total strangers, try looking at your existing connections in a new light. Your aunt or cousin may not have the job you dream of, but they may work at a company that has roles aligned with your aspirations. Take a look at alumni networks, interest groups, clubs, and other organizations you’re already a part of with a networking lens.
When you reach out to a current connection for networking purposes, make sure you’re providing context and a suggestion for actionable next steps. Instead of sending a note that says, “Hey, it’s been awhile, let’s chat!”, try something more nuanced. “Hey there, I hope all is well, and I’d love to get on a quick call to hear your thoughts on Company XYZ. Do you have some time in the next two weeks to connect?” You’ve given them a timeline and topic, and increased the chances that the conversation might progress in a productive way.
If you think about something you’re good at and enjoy (running, painting, playing an instrument, cooking a favorite dish, etc.), reflect on how you got so skilled at it. Hours, months, and years of practice have honed that skill until you can do it with ease. Then consider how long you’ve been trying your hand at networking in the design and tech spaces. It stands to reason that for most people, it’s going to be hard and uncomfortable at first-and that’s ok! Every new conversation is an opportunity to work towards being more comfortable in networking situations.
You may never love networking, but if you keep these tips and tricks in mind, they can help you take advantage of your next industry event. Good luck!
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