My enthusiasm for learning and eagerness to join the professional world has led me to make some embarrassing missteps as I fumbled my way through early attempts at networking. Through these painful episodes, I’ve learned how not to approach networking the hard way.
Meanwhile, I’ve heard my friends scoff at the notion of networking. “I’m going to form real relationships with people,” they say. “Me too,” I always reply, privately wondering exactly who those imagined mentors are and how my friends plan to break the ice in the first place. In our dried-up job market, the hard truth is that getting hired often comes down to who you know.
Our difference in opinion is based on misunderstanding of what I believe authentic, helpful networking can accomplish. The way I see it, authentic networking isn’t the same thing as being a ruthless social climber or preying on others’ successes. To me, networking is about contacting acquaintances—your friend’s mom, your aunt’s neighbor, your professor’s friend—who work in the field you aspire to join. It’s not about demanding free advice or digging through strangers’ biographies to see if they can connect you to someone at the top. It’s about meeting up for coffee and picking anyone’s brain who will let you, and most importantly trying to remain humble and earnest while you’re at it. If they mentioned a project that you might be interested in working on or a spot where your interests overlap, check in every few months. If you apply for a job or internship at the company where they work, forward your resume to them and ask them to pass it on to the hiring team. I’ve found that if you’re respectful and interested, people are generally willing to help you out. And what could be more “real” than that?
If you’re new to networking, learn from my stumbles. Here are my tips for networking in way that lets your best self shines through:
- They know more than you do. Period. No matter how many hours you’ve practiced or how many awesome internships you’ve scored, never forget that your fledgling career just can’t compare to that of someone who’s dedicated decades to polishing the same skills. I once worded an email somewhat hastily and received a response that left me in tears; the person I admired enough to reach out to thought I came across sounding ignorant of the industry and flippant about its challenges, though naturally I didn’t mean to at all. When that happens, all you can do is apologize and hope for a second chance. It’s just as bad to play dumb, but coming off as arrogant will probably lead to doors being slammed in your face. Plus it’s really, really embarrassing.
- Be grateful for all advice, even if you’ve heard it before. Even if the person tells you things you already know, it’s better to keep quiet and just ask intelligent questions that drive the conversation to a deeper level while showing that you’ve done your homework. The quality of your questions will demonstrate more than any monologue about your goals and life experiences. A good way to approach this is through a strong lead-in: “When I worked at [company name here], my boss had me work on [awesome project here]. How would you recommend I build on that experience?” This can help you strike a balance between making sure the other person knows how talented and accomplished you are without seeming like you’re bragging, and it feels a little more natural than rattling off a list. Humility never means selling yourself short, and gently guiding the conversation away from more basic advice can show that you’re serious about your career prospects.
- Know what they do. It sounds dumb, but it’s just so easy to prepare for a casual interview with a potential mentor by reading their biography, a few articles they’ve published, and a few facts about the company they work for. If you’re talking to a journalist, read some of their articles. If you’re talking to a baker, make sure you’ve eaten or cooked a few of their recipes. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time by asking things you could easily Google.
- Get a good night’s sleep. I once made the mistake of staying up all night before an early meeting with a radio producer. I was a zombie and could barely listen to the answers because I was trying so hard to formulate my next question. Set yourself up for success by sleeping well and eating a meal or snack beforehand so that you’re not distracted by a growling stomach. Also, bring Chapstick. It’s difficult to talk when your lips feel like two pipe cleaners.
- Take notes. But ask if it’s okay first. It can be very distracting if you suddenly whip out a laptop, iPad, iPhone, or notebook in the middle of someone replying to you. I don’t have an iPad, so I’ve used my iPhone in a pinch, but I prefer a laptop or classic paper notebook to avoid the appearance of texting. Just as eye contact is vital in public speaking, it matters in a networking meeting—try to maintain as much eye contact as possible while you’re scribbling away (even though that’s usually impossible). If the person you’re talking to does find it distracting, hang out after the meeting and scribble down as many notes as you can remember. The most important information to keep track of is specific advice about steps you can take, what projects they’re currently working on, any projects or job opportunities they may have mentioned to you, and essentially anything that could give you reason to follow up again—in a friendly and professional way, of course.
- If you’re sending an email instead of meeting in person, keep it brief. The first time, introduce yourself and inquire whether or not the person would be willing to share advice. Be sure to attach your resume. If you receive permission, ask up to three solid questions—or at least prioritize and keep it to a minimum. If someone is willing to meet with you for an hour, assume that they’ll be willing to work on an email for about 15 minutes max.
- End the meeting with a business card. Designing your own business card can help you to brand yourself while providing your conversation partner with all of your contact information. You can order them for as little as $20 online—check out this list of cheap and stylish cards and start exploring what your options are!
Networking and building authentic professional relationships can and should be one and the same. Once you begin talking to people about your professional goals, you’ll be amazed by how quickly you gather new resources, goals, and ideas.
What are your tips and tricks for networking? Tweet us @litdarling!