If you feel networking is strange and scary, you're not alone. Surveys have found people consciously and subconsciously have a difficult time with it. And it makes sense. Being surrounded by people you don't know feeds anxieties about everything from external appearance to internal fears of professional inadequacy. This feeling can be experienced both in a real room and inside virtual sites. But career experts say these fears can be dealt with if you have a plan about how to turn strangers into network contacts. Below are some of the best examples on how to do this.
1. Keep an open mind about everyone, especially on LinkedIn
Career expert Shanee Moret says you should think about approaching people in a networking situation as an opportunity to challenge your standard perceptions of others. She says in a recent post that there are five things you should think about:
- You don't know who someone [else] knows.
- You don't know who trusts that person.
- It's not fair to define someone's value based on their salary, job title or level of education.
- You don't know who someone can become.
- Everyone you do business with and trust was once a stranger.
In her words, everyone you "connect with is valuable and could lead you to your next opportunity." And knowing everyone is valuable should ease anxieties about talking to the so-called "right" people.
2. Start with your own networks — any of them
Career expert Marcelle Yeager tells My Perfect Resume you need to expand your idea of what a network is to find people who will be great network connections. When most people say they don't have anybody to talk to, they're actually not exploring their lives. "Everybody knows other people and if you worked with somebody and were well-liked, they're gonna want to talk to you," including people that have heard about but never met you.
Resume expert Alexine Garcia agrees, saying people have a very narrow idea of their networks as direct connections, like assuming they can only talk to people who graduated their same year of college. But it's just not the case, she says. "Having that mutual connection is [what is] important. It could be that you played intramural sports, maybe you were part of a book or knitting club."
3. Think about meaningful messaging
Getting a stranger to trust you is hard. But Yeager says that meaningful messaging, whether you're sidling up to a person at a party or sending a message on LinkedIn, is the way to earn it. It involves asking specific questions about their personal and business welfare.
"It's my number one thing. It sounds so simple but I've been getting LinkedIn connections with people writing, even really seasoned professionals, that they'd like to know me and connect with me. And I'm thinking 'You couldn't take a few minutes to ask how I am or why you decided to connect with me?' Just investing [time] to craft a couple of sentences, to explain why you picked that particular person to reach out to and what makes you so interested in them."
The most successful meaningful messaging should also include a temporal ask, such as a 15-minute phone call follow-up. "You're connecting with a human," she says.
4. Be honest
Transitioning from the greeting and salutation part of networking into meaty conversations is best done if you're as upfront as possible about your current career situation. Honesty, Yeager says, makes you and your story "more believable and real."
"You need to do some thinking about what the threads through your career are, what your strengths and skills are and what you enjoy doing the most to seem authentic," she says.
She also told us she recently talked to someone getting out of the restaurant business before she got laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. "You have to not be afraid of telling the story behind the story. If you were laid off, be transparent. Say you've spent 10 years at X and Y companies but your passion has always been [elsewhere]. Bring in whatever you can that tells that backstory."
5. Take handwritten notes
An old-school bit of advice from Yeager is that you should have a pen and paper handy when networking, especially when you're in the same room with a person but also on video.
"It shows you're really listening. It's like when you're in school, you're taking notes and it shows you're paying attention. But so few people do it now. And you can even have questions on it prepared that you want to ask."
6. Be humble
Garcia says showing off during networking is off-putting because no one wants to be associated with an arrogant person. Instead, you need to tap into people's natural proclivity to want to help others through mentorship and teaching. You can do this by being humble.
"A lot of networking ends up with someone taking you under their wing for mentorship. Being in the military, we were always taught as noncommissioned officers you always wanted to find someone who was one rank above you and shadow them, figure out what they're doing, figure out what they did to get where they're at. And we took on the attitude it was our job to mentor and train-up those under us. So having that attitude at any stage is [good]."