Anyone looking to advance themselves or their careers can probably benefit from some form of networking, whether it’s a cocktail hour during a conference, the aisles of a trade show, a company meet-and-greet or lunch with your local civic group. But networking is not about the handshakes, exchanged business cards or LinkedIn connections. Networking is only successful when it creates a relationship.
“People equate networking with shameless self-promotion or working a room or making small talk,” says Devora Zack, author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking. “Real networking is none of those things. Real networking is making meaningful connections that are mutually beneficial, one person at a time.”
But how do you achieve this? Like any effective meeting, networking requires a little preparation and etiquette. Whether you’re networking in person or online, focus on the essentials.
When Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s Career Expert, was getting ready to write her first book, she contacted a successful author she admired and asked for advice. It was a true cold call. So how did she start out? With a compliment. From that, she got a meeting and then help with the early stages of getting the book sold. “People think that the people they admire probably get complimented all the time. But in fact they don’t,” says Williams. “The higher up a person is, the less they’re approached because people presume they don’t want to be bothered or they’re inundated. That’s generally not the case.”
Thanks to social media, you can see where you and your contact’s lives have intersected. Maybe you went to the same college or both worked for the same company at some time in your careers. “You can start from there and build a relationship,” says Williams. If you’re using a networking site such as LinkedIn, never send a request without adding a personal note (and make sure it’s grammatically perfect). Point out a shared experience, connection or offer a compliment. Give the person a reason why they should connect with you, Williams says.
One of the big mistakes people make when networking is talking too much. “The best way to promote yourself is by being interested in the other person and demonstrating a sincere interest in what he is saying,” says Zack.
“A person who has the hardest time networking is the person who is nervous, isn’t warmed up and is going in with a manufactured ‘This is who I am’ speech,” says Williams. “I find that if you can open with a question, you can move into making a gentler connection.”
Some people feel that complimenting someone and emphasizing connections can come off as disingenuous or sycophantic. Get over that, says Williams. “Think about networking as simply building a relationship and getting to know someone,” she says. And remember that, “the line between talking about yourself and bragging is much further away than what you think.”
So how do you approach a colleague, especially if you’re a naturally shy or introverted person?
Don’t monopolize anyone’s time, says Zack. Once you start sensing cues from the other person that they’re ready to move on—touching your arm, backing away or glancing around the room—allow them to gracefully exit by saying, “I don’t want to take up all your time, but it’s been great talking with you” or “I know we’re here to mingle so [I’ll let you] move on.”
Remember that good networking starts a relationship. “We don’t build businesses or our careers in isolation,” says Williams. “With the majority of opportunities, you need someone to introduce you to an agent, to brainstorm ideas with you or give you a reference. Relationships are the absolute foundation of any part of your business.”
When at a networking event, end each encounter with, “Do you have a card?” says Zack. (Always have plenty of your own cards, a notepad and pens at the ready, as well.) Then, take a minute to write notes for yourself on that card that you’ll use when you send a personalized—never a generic or blind, carbon-copied-to-everyone-you-met-at-the-event—email. And follow-up within 48 hours, says Zack, unless that falls on the worst day to follow-up: the busy Monday. The best day for follow-ups is Friday.
If you haven’t heard back in 10 days, send a “tickler.” Forward your initial email with a quick “just making sure you received this” at the top. If you still don’t hear back, follow up one more time and then let it go. You want a relationship, but don’t risk being seen as a pest.
Following these steps may be easier for some than others, but once you get the hang of them and turn even a few leads into successful contacts, you’ll start taking the work out of networking.
Have a hard time starting conversations? Try Devora Zack’s techniques, which she says work especially well for introverts.
Cynthia Ramnarace is an independent journalist based in Rockaway Beach, N.Y. She specializes in personal finance, health and older adult issues. Find out more at cynthiaramnarace.com.