Being a young professional, it is important to give your career a jumpstart! This is accomplished by creating your own opportunities and discovering what's out there and available to you. Throughout the last 4 years, during and post-college, I have held full-time, part-time, and internship positions at seven different organizations, some national some local, (including Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Teach For America, and Target). I was able to secure an interview with each of these companies because I either knew someone who knew someone or I discovered an opportunity I could take advantage of by either meeting someone, hearing something from someone, or reading about an opportunity somewhere. None of these opportunities would have been possible if it wasn't for networking.
Before I go any further I want to define "networking." Networking is an activity by which individuals meet with the intent to form business relationships and in-turn utilize them to create, or act upon business opportunities, share information, and seek potential partners for different ventures. In layman's terms, networking entails meeting groups of people in order to gain new contacts that could potentially help you in the future... Although it can be intimidating, trust me its easier than it seems, and once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. With that said, I wanted to provide you with some tips on how to network with people while at an event, a meeting, etc. I hope this helps!
1. GO TO THE EVENT! In order to begin the networking process, you must first get up and get out there! Whether it's an industry networking event, career fair, award ceremony, or even an art exhibition reception, if you want to become skilled at networking you must begin to view every event as an opportunity to network.
2. PUT DOWN THE PHONE AND GO TALK TO SOMEONE! At networking events there’s no such thing as being “too cool." Isolating yourself by texting or being on Instagram and Twitter makes you look unapproachable and everyone else will look at you like, “why is he/she even here?” Or worse, people may not even notice you if you're on your phone, because they're out there, where you should be, getting their connections up! Being on your phone is a defense mechanism we now use to avoid uncomfortable situations. The best part about a networking event is that there's no need to feel uncomfortable; easier said than done, but you must remember that everyone there is looking to meet new people and connect with people like yourself. People aren’t going to approach someone on their phone, so put it on silent and go create some opportunities for yourself!
3. ASK QUESTIONS! No matter who they are, people LOVE to talk about themselves. I've found that asking people simple, interesting, intelligent questions is the quickest way to make a new connection. It makes you seem competent and knowledge-seeking. Unfortunately, when trying to network with new people many times we become tongue-tied and/or can't think of any icebreakers. So, here are a few easy conversation-starting questions you can use to spark up a potentially great conversation:
a. What brings you here (to this event)?
b. How’d you hear about this event?
c. Do you know anyone involved with hosting the event?
d. Do you come to these events often?
e. Do you find value in these types of events?
f. Do you have any success stories from an event such as this one?
4. TRY TO FIND SOME COMMON GROUND. At networking events everyone in attendance is there to (hopefully) make connections that can help grow their business in some way, shape or form. By finding common ground you’ll be able to tell whether or not this person can really help you get to where you want to be. So, tell this person what you do and what you hope to accomplish, and in return they’ll probably tell you the same. From there, if they can help you in some way, they’ll usually tell you or vice versa. A common mistake young professionals are prone to making is being short-sited. Since we want quick success we subconsciously weed-out people that cannot help us right then and there, when in actuality this person's assistance may not be able to kick in until months, or even years, later. For example: I interned at a gallery for a few months before ending my tenure there in January 2016. It wasn't until March 2016 that they called me with a exhibition curating opportunity for the upcoming November 2016. So, throughout the entirety of working at this gallery, it wasn't until almost 3 months after I had left that they actually offered me a tangible opportunity... Patience is a virtue.
5. KEEP YOUR CONVERSATIONS QUICK (PREFERABLY)! In order to network with as many people as possible keep your conversations between 30 seconds to 2 minutes (depending on how interesting the conversation is). Usually 30 seconds – 2 minutes is all the time you need to ask your questions, work your charm, gain the information you need, and decide whether or not you want to connect with this person anymore. As a young professional just beginning to network, you may be hesitant to cut conversations short because you may feel as though you’re being rude to the person you’re conversing with – but it’s not rude at all! You are there for one purpose: Meet and talk to as many people as possible! So, when you’ve gathered all the information you need, exchange contact information (if necessary), wait for a pause, then politely excuse yourself and thank him/her for speaking with you.
6. GO BY YOURSELF! Unless you’re going to an event with your business partner or someone that understands why you’re attending the event in the first place, going to a networking event by yourself is the best decision. Going with a friend, sibling, significant other, etc. can be a disadvantage because he/she will distract you from your goal of networking with as many people as possible. If you bring someone along you’ll be tempted to just talk to that person which won’t allow you to get out of your shell and put yourself out there. Also, going with someone else may also give you anxiety. Going alone gives you the advantage of avoiding the thought of being judged – you’re speaking to people you’ve never met before and you probably won’t ever see them again. So, you’re free to practice your spiel a couple times before you get it right, with no pressure. If you go to the event with someone you already know you may feel embarrassed if you mess up or get tongue tied while in that person’s presence. Now, I completely understand wanting to travel to an event with another person and that’s fine as long as both of you agree to go your separate ways once you step into the event. You can agree to go together, network alone, then meet up once the event has concluded.
7. BE YOURSELF! When people say this they don’t mean, be the wild Friday night version of yourself, but they also aren't referring to your quiet as kept sitting in the back of the classroom version of yourself either. When you approach someone, just talk to him/her as if he/she was one of your friends or someone you just met at a cookout or something. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to share your ideas and to let your personality shine through. By speaking to the real, honest, and candid you, people will figure out whether or not they think you’ll be a good person to work with. This is probably the most difficult aspect to master because many of us may feel unauthentic or that we're "putting on a show" when we network with others. I've heard people say such things as, "I feel bad because I'm only talking to people to get money out of them." And that is a HUGE misconception. Networking is used to share ideas and connections that will help us advance as business men and women, innovators, and just human beings in general. There's no shame, no dishonesty, nothing of that sort. You're literally there to tell people your ideas and/or what you're currently doing, and then see whether or not he/she would like to help you in any capacity; and in return you're doing the same for him/her. So, you're not being dishonest or not being yourself at all! You're simply exchanging one thing for another. We all need to realize that networking is just another one of life's transaction.
Set a goal of how many people you'd like to talk to/connect with before the event is done: This technique has helped me multiple times! When at a networking event of any sort you're playing a numbers game. The more people you talk to, the more likely you are to gain a useful connection. I'll give you an example and a true story... I remember once I went to an event with the mindset of, "okay, tonight I'm going to connect with at least 10 new people." A pretty decent goal I'd say, but the way I looked at it was, "if I talk to 10 people, I'll leave with at least a couple cool connections." And what do you know?! Two out of the ten people I connected with ended up being awesome connections for me - hey 20% ain't bad! One person I connected with ended up taking me a Christmas party, 6 months after we met, and introduced me to some pretty important people within the DC Arts community. The other person ended up becoming a great event photography client! Always remember this quote when setting networking goals:
Have the person you’re connecting with take a picture of your business card: Coming from a person that always carries business cards this technique seemed a little strange to me when I first heard it. But unfortunately when you hand someone your card, sometimes he/she may accidentally lose it. So, if you just have him/her take a picture of your business card, you lessen your chances of them losing your information, because it will automatically be on their phone (which is great because we live in an age where we’re all connected to our phones). So, they’ll be reminded of you when they check their phone, and may even be impressed with this new technique you’ll be showing them!