Networking events — can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. These seemingly fake, forced social interactions are becoming increasingly important, as the weight of “Who You Know” is on par with “What You Know.” The width of the professional net you cast matters, and can truly provide value when climbing the ladder or seeking out new employment opportunities. But let’s face it, networking is not fun. Even the most extroverted of individuals can find awkwardness in the art of networking — a practice to serve self-interests while feigning enthusiasm about the professional lives of strangers.
Having recently moved to a new city, I turned to dreaded networking events to not only make LinkedIn connections, but also to vet potential new friends. Granted, I didn’t dive right into the networking world right away. In fact, it took several rewatches of Gilmore Girls before I realized that I was a hermit in need of social interaction. Lucky for me, Madison has a thriving Young Professionals community, and it was easy to find happy hours or social events to attend. I found that tackling these networking events through the lens of “Looking for a Friend” instead of “Looking to Get Ahead” made them supremely more palatable and, dare I say it, enjoyable. So if you’ve tried to be a social butterfly but need some help fluttering, try some of my tactics below and reframe how you network.
1. Limit schmoozing and be authentic.
The first question I get asked at networking events is, “So, Laura, what do you do?” Don’t get me wrong; this is a great icebreaker. It makes approaching others easier when you attend an event solo, and it creates an opportunity to find common ground. But don’t let this initial question dictate your conversation, and definitely don’t let it lead to schmoozing. What is schmoozing, you ask? Namedropping. Bragging (humble or otherwise). Flattery. Selling yourself or your product. I mean, I’ve literally had someone share their salary with me in the first five minutes of meeting them. “I hate my job, but the benefits are totally stellar, am I right?” Gag me.
To a majority of participants, networking events make them feel vulnerable and insecure, so schmoozing or putting up a front is an easy reaction. Instead, push yourself to be authentic. Talk to a networker like you’re talking to a friend. Ask questions that do more than assess someone’s level of helpfulness or status. My strongest networking connections have come from being my weird self, and not from masking myself with my resume.
2. Show genuine interest.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone completely tune out of our conversation when they learn that I’m not in their industry, or that my status is not elevated enough. “This chick can’t help me get ahead in business without really trying,” they think as they start scanning the room for fresh meat. Listen, not everyone can provide insight into your work world, but I guarantee they can provide insight into another important aspect of your life or professional journey. Without taking an interest in the IT guy drinking a Cab, you’ll never learn that he volunteers at an organization that supports your favorite cause. By talking to the woman in a plaid pencil skirt who works in marketing, you’ll learn she has great stories about dealing with a terrible boss. And maybe the programmer geek across the room is looking for someone to join his summer softball league. These fellow networkers may not be able to directly help you climb the corporate ladder, but what they have to say is valuable. Listen to them.
3. Value quality over quantity.
Many people attend networking events with the goal of collecting as many new business cards as possible, but I advise quality over quantity. This mantra has guided me when making friends and now directs my professional networking as well. Sure, I can easily make 25 new contacts at a happy hour event, but I can’t get to really know them in that time frame. My new goal at networking events is to make connections that are stronger than social media. I spend time getting to know someone beyond their work life, and look for networkers who strive for the same level of decency.
The chums dismissing me after a brief introduction? I don’t need those kind of people in my life — people who are too self-absorbed or one-track-minded to invest their time in measly me. They’re not quality connections. Networking to help your career can only be effective when you’re making quality connections, and demonstrating your own quality through interactions. Who cares if you schmoozed up Joe Schmo at happy hour for five minutes? Could he be a reliable reference? Could he speak to your character? What could he actually say to someone about you that would better your career odds? Nothing. Instead of working the room, try and hit it off with two or three networkers, and let your personality work for you.
4. Follow up.
After my first few networking events, I met some really cool people, and never saw them again. I didn’t follow up on our interaction and lost out on great opportunities, both professional and personal. Let me be clear: your follow-up does not have to be a coffee date to discuss professional aspirations. It can be sharing a news article they might find interesting, sending a quick note on LinkedIn, or posing a follow-up question from your previous interaction. I was recently connected with a great philanthropic organization by following up with a networking contact about an event they mentioned.
Hell, maybe you just met a cool dude (or dudette) and want to have a beer while pondering the next season of Game of Thrones. Don’t feel obligated for your follow-up to be strictly business. Through repetitive encounters and interactions, you’ll develop a rapport and relationship with your new LinkedIn connection that spans beyond a cocktail hour. Networking is a two-way street, and only when you get to know someone can you truly understand not only how they can provide value to your life, but also how you can provide value to theirs.
A Chicago native, Laura is a lover of travel, fun fitness, and eating all the foods.
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