At the risk of sounding off as a gab-exhausted, horn-blowing egotist, I have but a confession to make: I am really good at networking. Like, scary good at it. I have the ability to connect with almost anyone, from anywhere, of any race, creed, religion or age, and it’s been this way for a long as I can remember.
I certainly have my faults when it comes to creating lasting relationships, and not everyone in my past has been my biggest fan, however I haven’t let this hinder me from creating a powerful social and professional network in my short lifetime. As a child I had to adapt at times to rapidly changing social situations. I was constantly pushed out of my comfort zone and was forced to make new friends often, not for professional reasons at all, but merely as a means of survival. I quickly learned how to make lasting impressions with people and to this day, I still remain in contact with people from my childhood.
I’ve used this as a platform in my early career to begin building a solid professional network. As you may know, networking is generally accepted as crucial to your career as maintaining an updated resume/portfolio and acing your performance reviews. I’d like to share some things I’ve found to be successful for me while trying to navigate something that can feel so unnatural and disingenuous to most people.
Assume you can learn something from everyone.
Everyone knows something you don’t. Probably more than just one thing. With this attitude, coupled with a penchant for listening and a courageous ability to keep a conversation going, you will be astounded at what people will tell you. I don’t even mean this in a vulture-like nature; people generally like to share information and anecdotes with people they are even slightly comfortable with. It doesn’t matter if they are younger than you, elderly, or speak an entirely different language. Everyone’s experience is totally unique, and that’s amazing in itself.
Ask sincere questions, not only because you’re curious, but because you care about the answer. Listen to the trials and tribulations of other people. Everyone is fighting some sort of battle in their own life, and that information may not ever come up in conversation, but thinking about it in this way makes your connections more sincere, caring and fullfilling. By doing this, it has taught me that I can learn from everyone else’s experiences in some regard, whether that’s how to successfully complete a task or how to address emotional distress in others.
What does this have to do with networking you ask? Networking gets a bad rap because it’s often thought of as insincere, self fulfilling and a bit shallow. It doesn’t have to be, and the best connections and referrals will usually come from people who know and trust you. You may even stumble upon finding a great mentor-mentee relationship in this fashion.
Not everyone will want to connect with you.
There are 8 billion of us on this rock known as Earth. Not to state the obvious, but there are literally billions of chances to connect with others. Who cares if one person isn’t your biggest fan? This sounds simple, but honestly it took me years to get over the fact that I couldn’t be friends with everyone I met. I always felt like I was fun, smart, loving and full of things to offer other people. Not everyone else saw it the same way.
Part of being good at networking is being selective of who you choose to get to know. Generally speaking, if you’re at a networking event it’s a good idea to target people who are going to be most relevant to whatever your end goal is. If you want to gain a new client, target business owners and company leaders. If you want to expand your skill set, talk to people who have been in your shoes in the past.
This sounds contradictory to the “Learn Something From Everyone” point I just made, but an unfortunate truth of our existence is that we only have so much time and energy. While I would certainly love to take the time to get to know everyone personally at a networking event, the reality is that I just can’t. Be selective and choose wisely, and don’t sweat it if some people aren’t keen on your efforts. They probably don’t matter anyway, and it’s useless trying to make them see why you matter.
Cold emailing can actually work, but do it wisely.
I landed my first big freelance client this way. I was reading an article about Pittsburgh startups to keep an eye on in the upcoming year and I decided, what the heck, I’ll email them all and see what comes of it.
I wasn’t just sending my resume through the tubes, though, I was being resourceful about how I went about it. I used LinkedIn to find out who was in charge of the marketing efforts of these organizations and sent my message to them directly. I explained briefly what I did, how it could benefit them, and a link to (not an attachment of — don’t clutter someone’s inbox) of my portfolio and resume. A few of them responded back, and I ended up working consistently with one of them.
Be careful about this, however, because it definitely can backfire. Some people may not appreciate being stalked via LinkedIn (weird, I know. Since they have a profile on a professional social network and all.) It’s important not to come off as self-fulfilling, but rather how are you going to benefit this organization? Do some research about the company, and be genuinely interested in it. And of course, produce stellar work and maintain a great working relationship to the best of your ability. This is also how you can get referred, and have reviews written of your work.
Get yourself out there. Literally. Go outside.
I had a profound attitude shift when I stopped thinking of local events as things I could do for fun in my spare time and instead starting thinking of them as grounds for meeting other professionals in my city.
Fun events that don’t even seem like networking events are a prime example. Let’s say you decide to attend something like a wine-tasting tour (which, by the way, I highly recommend you do at some point between now and death.) People attending this sort of event will come from all walks of life, and many various industries. Usually if you’re attempting to provide a service to someone, it’s a good idea to start your search outside of your industry. Go to something fun, and make it a point to talk to a stranger. It might feel weird, but most people are cool about it and will talk back. Even if nothing professional envelopes out of it, you might just meet a new friend instead.
Also, do volunteer work! The benefits of this are multi-fold. First, you get to fill a real gap for an organization and make a real difference in the life of someone else. Also, you get to go to some pretty cool events for free. I started volunteering with an arts organization that allowed me to work on a holiday event for them, as well as attend a jazz music fest which was really stellar. It just so happened that at one of these events, I talked to the director of the center who let me know that they were currently seeking a designer on a freelance basis. I started working with them the following week.
Volunteering is also a great add to your resume. It shows that you have interests in growth outside of work and the drive to make it happen. It also can allow you to get a feel for an industry outside of your own. Craigslist is a good starting place for this, however there’s also a ton of websites dedicated to doing volunteer work. Check out WWOOF, an international organization that places volunteers with organic farms worldwide in exchange for free housing.
Become social media savvy.
This is a big one, yet so many people are totally unwilling and uninterested in participating online in social media. I get it, Facebook is a breeding ground for ridiculous posts and opinions and keeping up with content creation can be daunting for someone who’s already up to their eyeballs with work to get done. I had a conversation with one of my best friends recently about this, though, and we agreed that social media participation is, at this point in the human timeline, not just expected, but rather critical.
Facebook is, however, amazing in the way that for the first time in history humans can individually connect with any brand, anywhere, at any time and with ease. This is powerful and can be harnessed to your advantage. Using hashtags to propel your personal brand is a good way to reach outside of your established network. It’s also a good way to connect with other people in your field who may be able to share some insight. This applies to Twitter and Instagram as well.
Being plugged-in to social media will also help you stay on the curve of the most current trends and techniques in your field. It may also provide some much needed inspiration when you need it the most.
While it’s pretty apparent that your public content should be curated to best represent yourself (so leave off the questionable pictures from that dinner party three years ago,) recruiters on Reddit have noted in their AMAs that candidates who don’t have social media profiles at all are viewed as more questionable than their connected counter-parts. This makes total sense when you think about it; if someone doesn’t have an online identity at all in this day and age, it suggests that they have something to hide. This isn’t fair, but it’s just the way humans think.
After a long Twitter hiatus I recently rebranded myself and created an entirely new account dedicated solely to things in my professional sphere, and I’m glad I did. It’s given me insight into the field, connected me with other designers and art directors, and given me a platform to share with potential clients who want to know what makes me tick.
Go confidently in the direction of your goals.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is especially true for building a network. It’s intimidating to many people because sometimes it’s hard to decipher where to start.
Don’t think about it too much. Just get out there. Talk to someone. It might feel weird and unnatural at first but you will find that it snowballs after a bit. You will find that many, many people are more willing to help you than you think. And you will find that things are usually not as difficult to achieve as they seem in the beginning. Taking just one step in the direction you want to move is as imperative as taking the last step to reaching the destination.
Lastly, as an endpoint, I’d like to clarify some differences in approach depending on whether you consider yourself an extrovert, an introvert, or a combination of both (in fact, most people are.)
Introversion in it’s truest form can be a hinderance to the core foundation of networking: the conversation. I would encourage those who feel a bit more inwardly directed to take a leap of faith, along with a deep breath, and start with a simple “hello.” Getting your body close enough to another human to even begin talking to them is a good starting point, seriously. Most people are more open to your advances than you think. Don’t think so hard about how to keep the conversation going. Let it go. Elsa style. (I’m sorry for that reference.) This is something that gets easier with experience, just like anything else in life. You may even go as far to call yourself slightly extroverted afterwards — from the privacy and comfort of your own space, that is. Plus, other introverts that want to connect with you but don’t know how will be thankful you made the first move.
It’s easy to think that extroverted people have the advantage with building a network. The reality is that they don’t. Extroverts can have a tendency to bubble-over with enthusiasm and have troubling reigning in their truest selves, which is great and I don’t mean to kill your vibes, but it can also lead to anxiety, too many unorganized prospects to follow up with, as well too much talking and not enough listening. It’s important that you take the time to hone in the right people, ask pertinent questions of them and truly listen and be invested in their answers. I used to, and sometimes still do, feel a need to canvas a room and get to know everyone on a general basis. It’s what personally makes me comfortable in social interaction. I’ve learned that this is a flawed approach. You can’t be everything to everyone.
Whether or not you like a big network of people surrounding you or you prefer the solid relationships you have with just a few, there is no right or wrong here. Everyone is different and when we embrace our preferences instead of altering them to suite what we think works, that is when we are most successful.