If you’re looking for a job, building a business, or pursuing creative ventures, networking can help you connect with others in a meaningful way. It may be tempting to keep your head down and expect opportunities to find you, but expanding your network significantly increases your chances of getting hired or selling your products and services.
Networking with colleagues and meeting new ones can lead to mentoring opportunities or new solutions to your professional challenges. It’s easier to email a colleague you met at a conference to get their thoughts on software their company is using than it is to rely solely on internet reviews. Similarly, it’s easier to get hired if you know someone at the company who can get you the name of the hiring manager.
If you’re an entrepreneur, networking can lead to collaborations that help you expand your services or to customer referrals.
For many, the idea of networking evokes images of crowded meeting rooms where attendees engage in awkward conversations while donning name badges and swapping business cards or QR codes.
That scenario is hardly the way networking works, especially during the pandemic. But just because most networking happens online instead of in-person doesn’t mean you should resort to salesy cold calls or aggressive email tactics.
So, how does networking work? And how do you become “good” at networking?
Prepare your pitch
Have you ever stammered or looked blankly in response to the tell-me-about-yourself question? Well, you’re not alone. As simple as it may seem, many people struggle to talk about themselves clearly and concisely. Whether it’s because of modesty norms, a lack of clarity, or some other reasons, the initial introduction is often the most dreaded part of an interview or networking experience.
When you’re networking, it helps to have an elevator pitch that explains who you are, what you do, and what you’re looking to do next. Your elevator pitch, aptly named because you could introduce yourself and your work in a 30-second elevator ride (back when people used to ride in elevators together), often sets the tone for the rest of your conversation.
The key is to give enough information about yourself to intrigue the listener. Your goal is for someone to want to connect further and learn more about you by the end of that proverbial elevator ride.
When you’re in an online meeting or networking event, you can still deliver a compelling elevator pitch that makes people want to connect with you further. Your online pitch may need to be a bit shorter or typed into a chat box, but it’s still a TL;DR summary of yourself.
Make an ask
Rather than just giving someone a career history or reciting your biography, an elevator pitch can end with an ask—an open-ended question, request, or even a desire to do something in the future.
Job seekers may make an ask that indicates to a recruiter or hiring manager what they would like their next professional move to be, such as, “I’m looking to leverage my project management background and startup experience to get started in organizational development.”
For a service-based entrepreneur, an ask could be, “You can check out my coaching packages on my website.”
If you’re looking to learn more or you’re simply looking to expand your professional network, you could ask, “I’d love to chat with you and learn more about your career path.”
With so much emphasis on what you should say when you’re networking, it’s important to remember to be a good listener, too.
Just as with any form of interpersonal communication, we show people respect by actively listening to them—not multitasking or looking for the next opportunity to jump in and interrupt.
A lot of communication is virtual these days, and in-person conversations are muffled by masks, so it’s crucial to take extra steps to listen intently to people when they speak. That may mean muting notifications for the duration of a meeting, finding a spot for an uninterrupted conversation, and resisting the urge to check email while someone else is talking.
Be of service
Recruiters, hiring managers, and customers are being sold to on every imaginable platform. While your pitch may be stellar, oftentimes people ultimately want to know what’s in it for them.
Besides demonstrating your good manners and communication skills, listening can also identify people’s needs and potentially be of service.
Thinking of your work as a contribution that fills a need can be a more authentic way to connect.
Nurture your network
Once you’ve amassed an overflowing stack of business cards or hundreds of connections on your professional networking site, you may still doubt how any of that can help your career.
That’s where following up comes in.
Once you meet a new connection, you can stay on their radar by staying in touch. You don’t need to engage in long phone conversations but you can always forward an article of interest, like or (even better) comment on something they’ve posted online, or write a recommendation after you’ve had a good experience with them.
Also, don’t forget to send a thank-you note to someone who has referred you for a job or introduced you to someone else.
A little networking goes a long way in the professional realm. Nurturing your network can take you even further.
Lucy Samuels is a Communication and Career Coach who is based in New York City. She helps corporates and corporate misfits develop the communication confidence to share their professional stories and land amazing opportunities. You can learn more about Lucy by visiting her website. Check out her previous article, “3 Ways to Boost Your Job Search from Home.”