I have only relatively recently started thinking about my career in more concrete terms than “I’d like to do something useful and interesting with my life.” As a result of that, I’ve done a lot of networking in the past 6 months, and I’ve met a lot of really awesome and brilliant people. So, while I’m not an expert, I have noticed a few things that can make or break a networking experience. Here are 3 specific rules and 3 general ones which have been, for me, the keys to successful networking.
1. First things first. Keep an eye out for opportunities. Join twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn. Join e-mail lists for professional organizations you’re interested in. Talk to the people you already know in your field. Ask questions and pay attention to the answers (pay attention to the answers to other people’s questions, too). If you’re passive about finding opportunities, they will not throw themselves at you. You have to pursue what you want to further your career.
2. Business Casual. Once you find an opportunity and go to an event, present yourself as a professional. A conference is not the place to show off your favourite witty T-shirt. Better to be overdressed and look like you mean business than to be under-dressed and look like you just rolled out of bed and decided you might as well show up. How you dress is not just about first impressions or about your personal image: it’s about respect. Dressing well shows that you cared enough to make the effort.
3. Wear your lanyard. Or ID badge, or nametag. Wear it somewhere prominent. Nobody wants to have to look at your crotch to find a nametag pinned to your belt loop. If someone wants to talk to you but has forgotten your name, they may be discouraged and move on if they cannot see your badge. Plus, you want people remembering who you are, right? That’s the whole point of networking.
4. Approach People. If you are afraid of talking to strangers, you are going to have to get over that. If you don’t have confidence, fake it. Walk up to someone (or a group of people) who seems interesting and introduce yourself. Strike up a conversation. Learn something about them, and teach them something about you. Maybe you’ll make career connections, maybe you’ll learn new things, maybe you’ll even make friends. Don’t try to meet everyone, because it’s not possible; instead, try to make a real connection with every new person you meet. Being friendly counts. Being genuine is crucial. Find people you want to be around and potentially work with, not just the most important or most convenient people at the event.
5. Don’t be creepy. This goes without saying, right? The line between friendly and creepy is really not all that thin. Don’t cross it. Ever. Not even a little bit. Just don’t.
6. THIS IS IMPORTANT – IF YOU ONLY RETAIN ONE THING, LET IT BE THIS: The rules of networking are the same as the rules of everyday life. Just be okay to the people around you. If you are mean, critical, creepy, condescending, wheedling, irritating, or generally unlikable, people will not like you, and if people you network with do not like you, it could trash your career. If you are friendly and polite to everyone, the worst thing that could possibly happen is that nothing happens. You had a decent day, it didn’t impact your career, and you can go on with your life. Just don’t be the worst, and everything will be fine.