Networking. It's the bane of our professional lives for many of us. While some people have a natural knack for small talk with references to work dotted here and there, and are always giving out business cards left right and centre, many people find networking events at best a chore and at worst a nightmare.
Most "how to network successfully" guides state tips that would be simple to excessively confident people who will approach almost anybody, but sound overly intrusive and silly to the rest of us. Suggesting to "steer the conversation back around to yourself and your skills" implies that you've already had to approach somebody and got into a conversation, and now have to brag. It all seems unheard of.
Our American cousins are perhaps the best at this. A more talkative nation than the cynical Brits, their genuine sincerity and enthusiasm when discussing interesting topics mean that what we see as networking comes easily to them through just making genuine conversation and looking for similar interests with people they are speaking to, whether this will help them in their careers or not.
When it comes down to it, networking is merely making new contacts, or even friends, in the same industry as you. Cynicism about being forward can actually hold us back, particularly if it is based on insecurity about speaking to somebody more important or influential than you. If we feel that if we would personally be irritated by an out-of-the-blue interruption to our working lives, we wouldn't do that to others.
But cast aside those fears of annoying potential employers or clients and read these tips - based on a more open, American way of thinking - to help you make better contacts worry-free.
Care about what you're talking about
The problem: Attending a compulsory networking event for work, or to accompany a friend can seem like a chore, and you don't feel like talking to a lot of people you don't know
What to do: If you're not enthusiastic, your new contacts won't take you very seriously. Editorial Director at Conde Nast, Cristina Thompson says: "Networking, at its core, is selfish and thus, the act can come off very disingenuous. Typically, people “network” in preparation to eventually tap this inner circle for further career gain. With that said, if you come to the table in hopes to find commonality with the person you are engaging and seek mutual benefits, you are more likely to forge a genuine connection that will span many years and multiple career stops. [...] In short, my #1 rule is: Network with the intention to foster sincere and profound relationships, anything else will be futile and result in a weak cohort."
The result: While you may end up having a few conversations that don't have a direct result for your career, people will remember you for being genuine which could come up trumps in the future. Plus you'll have a nicer time at a networking event.
The problem: Building relationships with people purely based on potential personal gain feels incredibly fake. Studies show that people literally feel dirtier when approaching someone for networking rather than socially.
What to do: Be inquiring, but not intrusive - make sure you ask about your colleagues and contacts' lives outside work when speaking to them in a professional context. Magazine writer and blogger Joanna Goddard says "when you email someone about a project, ask about their dog. Tell them about your vacation. Send a card when they have a baby. Be real with them. Help people. Stay in touch. Tell friends about job openings. Meet for breakfast, or send a short note saying you loved their recent article or project."
The result: Not only will you increase the chances of making friends at work, and gaining a genuine support network there, but you will be able to approach people at events without it feeling forced, and it will be easier to introduce colleagues to one another.
Don't limit networking to business events
The problem: Stories along the lines of "I just went to a party and got a new job because my friend of a friend knew somebody" seem to have happened to everybody but you.
What to do: Network anywhere and everywhere, until it becomes second nature, and you don't think of it as networking. Cristina Thompson says: "I was at a restaurant recently and the GM came over to our table to ask how things were going. Instead of the usual “fine, thank you” I told him the food was delightful (which it was) and gushed about my favorite dish (beef tartare) and told him the ambiance of the place really made the meal (which it did). I asked him to share his favorite cocktail from the menu and after a few minutes of small talk he handed me his business card. Instead of tossing it into the oblivion of my purse, I put it in my wallet where I was sure to see it the next time I paid for something. I followed up the next day, kindly reiterating how great the meal was and that I was definitely going to come back on several occasions. I have since been back a dozen times, email him directly for reservations and he always pays my table a visit with complimentary appetizers making me look like a hero to my dinner mates. "
The result: You may find opportunities in unexpected places - whether work related or not - and you'll find conversing with people you don't know a lot easier.
The problem: You feel like you aren't "professional enough" or experienced enough in a colleague's area of expertise to join in a conversation, and end up speaking to people who may not be able to help you out
What to do: Be brave. Sadly, there's no magic formula, just take a deep breath and dive in. Admit from the start if there's something you don't know a lot about, and ask questions - often your perspective will be different and interesting so try not to get bogged down if you feel like you've said something silly. Lena Dunham says, "I still go to a party and say something embarrassing to someone, and then write them a weird e-mail about it the next day, and then write them a text because I think they didn't get the e-mail. No matter what happens with your level of success, you still have to deal with all the baggage that is yourself."
The result: While at first it might be terrifying, you'll soon become more confident in speaking to people you don't know, about subjects you don't know. Which, of course, is the aim of networking.
Don't be rude
The problem: Networking seems so insincere that you sometimes forget the usual courtesies of engaging in conversation
What to do: Cristina Thompson offers her advice on how to not aggravate people you are speaking to at an event: "Particularly, I hate when I have been approached by someone and the entire time we are in conversation they are looking over my shoulder seeing if anyone more important is nearby. Focus on the subject in front of you. I can assure you that your undivided attention will go further than chasing the next big thing across the room. Another thing that irks me is when people are stingy with their network and don’t help others. The point is to be a connector, constantly making introductions and suggesting meet ups among your peers."
The result: Rather than ticking people to network with off a list, you may make a stronger connection with one particular contact, who could introduce you to other people.
Be enthusiastic when you speak to your contacts
The problem: Your emails to new contacts always seem to sound flat and cold, and you worry about appearing cynical when following up
What to do: Joanna Goddard recommends to "be very appreciative when people help you. Write glowing thank you notes. Be excited about your work. Say things like, “Absolutely,” “My pleasure,” “Thrilled to be working with you,” “Can't wait to get started." Generally, be a pleasure to be around. THIS IS NOT THE SAME AS BEING A DOORMAT; you’ll still ask for what you want, but you’ll ask nicely."
Be friendly, but make sure to know where to draw the line - for instance, adding kisses to the end of work emails is becoming more commonplace in certain industries (an article in The Atlantic remarks that adding xx to the end of an email is similar to "how the epistolary greeting Dear changed over time, originally just for addressing loved ones but eventually becoming neutral"), but can look unprofessional, so judge carefully.
The result: Contacts are more likely to respond to friendly, relevant emails, so adding talking points and being genuine are more likely to get a response and start a conversation
Stay in touch
The problem: While you may have followed up the first time successfully, you can't think of a real reason to email a contact you don't see often again if you have no news to share
What to do: Prepare to follow up every time you speak to a contact - mention an article you have read that you can send on the next day, or add a question about their family. Mention when you might next get in touch, so you'll feel less embarrassed to email out of the blue, and they will be expecting your email (whether subconsciously or consciously). Or if they are on social media, make sure you pay attention to what they post about and respond, although not to every single thing they say. Digital marketing specialist Chloe Mason Gray says "I schedule separate times each week for reaching out to new people and for touching base with people already in my spreadsheet. It may sound silly to formally schedule it, but if you don’t, it means you’re not really prioritizing it—and it probably won’t get done."
The result: You will create a rapport with contacts that feels less forced - and could result in hearing about an opportunity casually
Use Linkedin wisely
The problem: You don't see a way to use LinkedIn once you've created your profile, because your job hasn't changed for a while
What to do: The important thing with LinkedIn is to keep yourself coming up in searches. If your job title doesn't reflect your role, make sure you describe what you do so that when your skills are searched for, you come up. For instance, if you're a marketing manager, those two words do not cover the fact that you might organise events, run a social media accounts for your company, or look after budgets. But adding these terms in mean that somebody looking for a social media manager might find you and get in contact.
LinkedIn now includes Facebook-style statuses, so you can update what projects you are working on, or if you're going on a business trip for instance - this will bring you up on your connections' home page and keep you in mind. You can also add what you're interested in, which will again bring a profile update up in your newsfeed, so even if your job hasn't changed, you can continue to put yourself in front of people. Endorsing contacts or colleagues' skills usually inspires them to endorse you back, encouraging positive interaction.
The result: More profile views, and potentially people getting in contact with you - networking without networking!
Offer opportunities 'up and down'
The problem: You feel like you are the bottom of the pile and have nothing to give back to contacts who help you
What to do: Make sure you help out colleagues or contacts on your level, or below you as well as the bosses and inspirational people. Send contacts opportunities you've seen, introduce them to other people you've met and try to help new members of the team and interns - you never know where or when it could pay off. Author and intellectual motivator Marianne Williamson once said "Nothing liberates your greatness like the desire to help, the desire to serve."
The result: By doing everything you can to help others, people will feel indebted to you and hopefully help you in similar ways in the future
The bottom line
Networking doesn't work if you merely introduce yourself to influential people. Having climbed the ladder themselves they will recognise your Machiavellian scheme, but if you are genuinely kind, enthusiastic and helpful, people are more likely to respond in the same way. When it comes down to it, being a good networker is the same as being a good friend, and using these qualities in work situations is definitely something us cynical Brits can pick up from the Americans.
Words: Victoria Gray, Images: Rex Features