Okay, that’s a misieading title. If you were a natural, you wouldn’t need this list. But the right networking techniques are not always obvious. Networking is a highly personal experience that varies depending, amongst other things, on your chosen path, the milieu in which you network and your personality. Here are 10 things to keep in mind that could make you a better networker:
- The ‘elevator pitch’
You may have heard of the elevator pitch – the 30-second description of yourself, your achievements and your ambitions that you always have to hand in case you meet someone interesting and are pressed for networking time. It certainly is useful, and certainly extremely important to be nmiliar with your own professional story should you need to present it to a potential contact. DO have it ready and know it well for when the need crops up naturally in conversation, but DON’T enter into a competition with yourself to present it to as many people in the room as possible. As you’ll see from the rest of these tips, the elevator pitch is not the bread-and-butter of a productive networking experience.
- Don’t be obsequious
The point is not to beg for work experience, beg for an email address, beg for advice. Sure, your – let’s call them your Networking Subject, or NS for short – NS will probably agree to giving you their email if you ask nicely, but what kind of impression do you think you will leave by desperately showering them with questions, vying for an email and then giving way to the next student in line? Brown-nosing comes under this heading, so watch out that your networking ‘conversation’ isn’t just cramming in as many questions as possible in an attempt to appear curious and possible in an attempt to massage your NS’s ego.
- Know what you want
This goes hand-in-hand with your elevator pitch – know what you want out of the interaction. After all, although you’re not going to plead for work experience or advice, the goal is nonetheless to get something from your NS. You might want a mini-pupillage or vacation scheme, or you might simply want some anecdotes from the profession in order to gauge your own interest. It might simply be a good contact you’re looking for, to keep on ice for later. Make sure that you know what it is you want, so that you will know where to steer the conversation, and so that you can either drop the right hints or make your request with conviction (and tact) when the time comes. If you know what you want, you’ll also know whether you’re talking to the right person.
- Networking is conversation
This is extremely important to remember. Networking, more often than not, is simply having a nice conversation with the right person. I spent a long time mistakenly entering into conversations with useful people with the sole goal of asking for a favour. (Does that remind you of something? See #2.) Who wants to be on the receiving end of that? Not me. It took me getting sick of doing it and saying to myself “I just want to have a bloody normal conversation with one of these professionals for once!” to realise that that was what I should have been doing all along. Sometimes, you don’t even need to have a goal in mind – strike up an enjoyable and more memorable conversation and you may have just found a valuable contact. Naturally. Once I started doing that, I started making more solid connections and even getting more of what I wanted, because having a conversation made it so that my ambitions – and their offers – emerged naturally during our exchange. Sure, sometimes conversation steering is necessary, but in my experience, NS’s react much more positively to a peer-to-peer conversation than another desperate student coming to ask them for something (again, see #2). Not only that but if you’re trying to stand out from the other scrabbling networkers, the way to do it might just be to be the only one not overtly trying to get something.
Great! I got the email address for the CEO of the biggest head honcho in the tallest building in Canary Wharf! I’ll just add it to my list of powerful emails and wait until I need it. No, my little eager networker, you have more than likely now rendered that email completely useless, and you might as well throw it away. To you and a flock of 20 other seagulls like you, Mr(s). Fantastic has simply tossed the business-card bread (it’s not as big a deal to them as it is to you, really) and risks now promptly forgetting about you for the rest of their lives unless you follow up on your effort. Did any questions arise from your conversation or the talk they’d just delivered? Did you have a question about their working life? Did you want to go ahead and try asking for that work experience? Write them an email within the next 1-2 days. Say your “hope you are wells” and “it was a pleasure to meet you the other nights”, and ask your question. It might lead to another conversation, it might simply get a minimal response, but they’re more likely to remember you when you need a favour a few months down the line if you’ve followed up, and their memory of you extends a little further than that one night you met at that networking event at that place.
- Attend as many events as you can (and want)
There is nothing complicated about this one and no explanation necessary. Hear about an event? Go. It’s scientifically proven that your chances of talking to people at certain places increase exponentially if you go to more of those places. I’m not even joking.
- Use your time wisely
If it’s a big room and everyone’s trying to talk to the same people, maybe wait for the right opportunity and don’t crowd when you could be talking to someone else. But equally – and this might sound egotistical, but it’s not – be careful that you don’t waste your time talking to the wrong people. If you’re in a room full of QCs (read: bank of mini-pupillage opportunities and a wealth of free-flowing wisdom), don’t get caught up for too long talking to a nice student in the year below you next to the snacks table. It’s nice to meet peers and make connections with people in the same boat as you, but think about what your priorities are at that moment. Are you there to meet other students that can’t give you work experience? If not, have a good conversation for a short while. But don’t spend the whole night chatting to someone who can’t give you the advice you’re looking for when you attended this event with that exact goal in mind. There is a time and a place for everything.
- Work experience is a networking opportunity too
In this setting, you’ve got licence to drop your massive postal bag of questions on your supervisor’s lap, and they know it. But take the opportunity to initiate some natural conversation too, with all of the above points in mind, and you might just find that you make a better impression and are more likely to be successful in follow-up than if you simply turned up with a pad of paper and a pen, listed your questions, shadowed like you didn’t exist, and went on your way.
- Dress well
Another one that goes without saying. Since I can only speak with authority on women’s clothing, I won’t go into detail. I’ll simply say that you should dress as if you were appearing in court – and google the details. If you’re still a student and can afford to buy yourself a nice suit or dress and a shiny pair of shoes, do so. (NB: people may disagree, but I’m also of the opinion that – HEAVILY depending on the forum – you can also turn up in a very well-put-together and elegant smart casual outfit, such as jeans and a button-down shirt and jacket, and it’s the same for a woman! However, do so at your own risk.)
- Networking online
Until recently, I always scoffed at the idea that one could network on Linkedin or on any social medium. But I’ve realised just how many valuable contacts are exchanged, and even heads hunted, over Linkedin, and I’m now very open to the idea. It’s especially useful given that you can find more or less anyone you’ve met on Linkedin, and it’s absolutely fine to contact them even if you haven’t first gotten their email in a face-to-face meeting. It’s professional stalking, and it’s totally acceptable (do you think I can pitch that to Linkedin for their slogan?). As for email – I’ve sent a decent number of emails to professionals after having been passed their details by a mutual contact. Some of them have not been fruitful, but many have; and with some, just the advice I got was valuable enough. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to have met someone in order to network. You can cold-email them, or you can ask a professional contact you already have to dig in his pocketbook for other people that could help you.
Phew, that was a lot. Some you might agree with and some not, but the overarching message is to think carefully about how you present yourself, and whether you’ve been using all the right techniques, or whether another tactic might be more productive.