Networking can get a bad rap for being nothing more than soulless schmoozing, but real networking is about connecting people, in order to build supportive and productive communities.
Good networking, however, takes practice, and there are right and wrong ways to go about it. You don’t want to walk into a networking event unprepared, or with nothing to contribute. So before diving in headfirst, it’s worth taking a look at the advice of a seasoned networker, someone who’s seen it all and can shed light on the mistakes that you don’t want to make.
Advice from someone who knows
Tim Ferriss, networking extraordinaire and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, chalks much of his success to his networking efforts at the 2007 South by Southwest conference. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a series of festivals and conferences held annually in Austin, Texas, attended by everyone from musicians to aspiring tech entrepreneurs. It was at SXSW that Ferriss first promoted his 4-Hour Workweek philosophy, and built the foundations of his professional network.
Having come full circle, it was Ferriss who presented a talk on networking at last years SXSW, sharing some of the valuable networking lessons he’s learned along the way. Drawing from this, we can learn some valuable lessons by breaking down six of the biggest networking mistakes that he’s seen people make.
Disregarding people who don’t look important
One of the crucial things to remember (regarding networking in this context, but also applicable to life in general!) is that everyone is on their way somewhere. Just as you may be just taking your first tentative steps out into the professional world, so was everyone at some stage.
The youngest staff members might have the richest knowledge of the newest technologies, and entry level employees may be bringing valuable knowledge from another field in which they previously worked. The guy who made your morning coffee might be tomorrow’s Steve Jobs, and the new girl at work this week could be your boss one day – so build a good rapport with everyone!
The point of networking is being a part of a diverse community of people from different fields, with different skill sets and networks of their own. The more of a mixed bag your own connections are, the wider reach your network will have.
As Ferriss told Business Insider, ”You should behave here like everyone you interact with has the potential … to get you a cover story in The New York Times — because many of them do”.
Quality, not quantity
Networking events should not be viewed as a race to see how many business cards you can distribute and collect. You want to discover people with whom you can create real relationships.
Meeting people face to face, whether at a networking event or any other, is not like the digital realm where success is gauged by the number of friends or followers you can acquire.
So while there may be dozens of people who could totally change your life at any given event, Ferriss advises that “your job should be to try to have a deep human connection with one of those people before you leave.”
Being unprepared and unsure
Never head into a networking event unprepared. Be clear in your own mind why you are there, what you hope to achieve, and what you can offer other people. Do you need a job, or a mentor? Are you after advice, or referrals? Understanding what it is that you want out of networking is important; whilst it’s a two way street, you need to know what you want, and be assertive about reaching your goals.
Be upfront about what you believe in, as opposed to being vague about your views and intentions. And while it’s not all about you, don’t be afraid to bring up your own skills and experience, which you can talk about more casually in the form of anecdotes.
Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to conversation etiquette
While we’ve addressed the fact that you want to be making stronger connections with fewer people, there is a fine line between investing time in a person and chewing someone’s ear off. Everyone wants to be mingling to a certain extent, so make sure that you’re being sensitive to social cues and conversation etiquette.
Use your common sense and watch the dynamics of a conversation before you interrupt it. A good general rule of thumb is don’t interrupt two people deep in conversation, but if it’s a group of three or more then it’s usually ok. The tactic Ferriss employed at SXSW to enter a new conversation was to walk up to a group and say “Hey guys, do you mind if I join you just to eavesdrop? It’s my first time here and I don’t know anybody. I’ll buy you guys a round of drinks.” This is a tactful and self-aware approach that smoothes your entry into the conversation. Once you’re in, don’t try to steal the show. Just listen at first, and wait until an appropriate time to chime in, perhaps to ask a question clarifying a point made by somebody else.
Lastly, know when it’s time to leave a conversation. If somebody is scanning the room over your shoulder, or has been talking to you for an extended period of time, be the one to give them an out so they can make a graceful exit. Ferriss’s method is to ask if the person he’s speaking to will be around for a while, and to then suggest exchanging business cards and connecting again in the future.
Handling a networking relationship like a short term fling
Before you start asking for favours, put some time and energy into nurturing the relationship. Try to offer something before you ask for something – even if it’s just an introduction or an interesting piece of reading.
Make sure that you follow up, and follow through. Don’t ask for too much too soon, and don’t make every communication a sales pitch. Do what you say you’re going to do, and always follow up with an email or a quick call.
It’s critical that you don’t let your professional connections feel exploited. Don’t use someone as a reference without their permission, don’t name-drop someone unless you’re sure that you have a good reputation with them, and don’t make people regret connecting with you by sharing their contact information too freely.
Forgetting your manners
And finally, don’t forget your pleases and thankyous! Whilst you want to keep your professional networks professional, it’s important that you maintain the niceties with your contacts, and make them feel respected and valued as a person.
If a contact hooks something up for you (and even if it falls through), it’s impolite not to send a thank you message. You want to acknowledge the time and effort they’ve put into helping you, and maintain a positive relationship with them into the future.
Regard your professional networks with a spirit of generosity, remembering that everyone needs something, and not only does your willingness to contribute help build a stronger network for everybody, it will encourage others to do the same for you.