Networking—intimidating, phony, waste of time? It gets panned a lot. But what it really is is connecting, talking, and listening with people. And we don’t just need that to help our careers; we need it as humans!
If you’re new to networking and want to know what it’s all about, or you’ve tried it and don’t yet like it, we can help. We asked coaches and experts for the pro tips on how to embrace networking and what to actually say when you’re doing it. Check out their answers to your networking questions, including a list of what to ask at your next conference or career-focused cocktail party.
Your networking questions answered: How do I embrace networking?
When you’re shaking in your loafers the next time you walk into a room of networking colleagues, remember that most people you’ll meet feel the same as you.
“If you’re nervous about networking or not sure where to start, you are not alone,” says networking coach Cathy Paper. “A RockPaperStar [her coaching company] study in 2016 of 600 professionals found that 62 percent of people don’t like the word ‘networking’ or meeting new people in groups over five people. So take a deep breath and be the one to introduce yourself.”
You might be nervous because of intimidating encounters or awkward conversations you’ve had before. They’re hard to shake. But you can change that by leading the conversation and focusing on the connection itself, not what it can yield for you. The more we all treat networking as a way to simply meet people we might be able to share career guidance or experience with, the more it shifts from “schmoozy” to “friendly.”
“There are two types of networking: the one you mention that has that negative reputation and connotation (with good reason), and then there is this more modern idea of networking that is not those things,” says career coach Allie Villarreal. “I will argue it’s time we throw out the idea of networking as it formerly existed, i.e. as self-promotion. Networking is and should be about meeting people with the intention of creating and fostering meaningful, professional relationships. When we practice networking with this intention, we aren’t worried about how or even if this relationship is going to help us get ahead, but rather focusing on learning about this individual, their journey, and their outlook in professional spaces we either want to enter into or interact with. When we come with openness and curiosity, you will always ‘win.’ Break [networking] down to its root: We are creating a net for ourselves. We can see it as a safety net, a net for resources and opportunities, or even just a web of professionals that we are joining to shape the space!”
And this reframing can be especially wonderful for women.
“That second type of networking is our strength because ultimately, networking is making connections,” says Villarreal. “As women, we have been taught and, to some degree, are naturally good at feeling out connections and opportunities in social settings. Networking is simply the more formalized process of building and fostering these relationships. With as much as we have working against us in many male-dominated, professional spaces, it is not only in our best interest to network, but is something we see has a massive impact on our professional growth that we as women can really capitalize on.”
Read more: How to introduce yourself professionally
Your networking questions answered: How do I build a network?
It can feel daunting to “build a network” when you’ve barely gotten to know your new coworkers, let alone leaders in your industry. So focus on starting small.
“Everyone knows five people, if it’s from your workplace, your high school, or your college,” Paper says. “Reach out to them and build a LinkedIn profile to show your skills. From there set a goal for what I call the ‘All-star 100 network.’ Forty-five people is plenty, too, but if you begin by joining an organization or association or volunteering at something you are passionate about you will quickly get 10–20 new people.”
LinkedIn is a very accessible way to follow people in your field and get to know them a bit before reaching out. Follow their posts, comment when you have a thought to share, see who you feel inspired by. People are there to connect with you, too, so remember to acknowledge those contacting you (when appropriate).
“Always invite people on LinkedIn with a few sentences of why you want to connect,” Paper says.
It’s also best to focus on building a network before you need something, like a job or more clients. That removes any pressure from your conversation.
If you want to venture offline and meet people IRL, but you’re still nervous at the thought of all that face time, remember: You don’t have to come away from your first event with 20 new contacts.
“Start with baby steps: Find an interesting event and simply attend,” Villarreal says. “This means no pressure to talk to anyone, no need to print out resumes or cards; simply attend the event with the goal of listening and learning. Often you will find everyone is happy enough to leave you alone while you still walk away with any and all learning you may have done. After that, build up your goals: ‘This time I will stop by one booth and give them my resume or I will raise my hand and ask one question after a talk,’ etc.”
Networking questions answered: How do I prepare for an event?
One of the best ways to calm nerves about an upcoming event is to know how you’ll answer certain questions that are likely to come up—and even say those answers aloud.
“Practice how you introduce yourself when asked ‘what do you do?’ or ‘who is your ideal client?’” Paper says. “And have a strategy for following up after meeting a new connection. I recommend an email and a LinkedIn connect and if possible a handwritten note reminding the person of your brief but impactful connection.”
Also, do your research. There’s plenty of information available before events that can help you feel less “cold” going into them.
“Always do as much pre-work as you can,” Paper says. “Get an advanced copy of the agenda and the list of guests if possible. Which companies do you want to meet and why? And what title of people do you want to connect with? Start connecting in line for coffee or at the gym. I recently attended [an event] with a client and we met many new contacts in a line for printed T-shirts. Have your business cards or an e-card system ready to use.”
Read more: More Networking Tips If You Hate Networking
Networking questions to ask at events
What you ask depends on what your goals are, but also who you’re interacting with and where you are. Definitely be prepared with questions, but also read your audience and see what they’re responding to.
“Finding your list of networking and relationship-building questions is personal,” Paper says. “Watch how people respond when you ask about their hobbies or where they are from or who their ideal client is. Any questions that allow you to share your knowledge are good, too. For example, we work with business book authors and I might ask people if they knew that 80 percent of authors sell under 1,000 copies. Sometimes a fact has more impact than a question.”
Villarreal gives the following networking questions examples based on who you’re talking to:
Networking questions to ask a fellow attendee:
What brings you to this event?
Are you currently in the field or looking to break into it?
What are you hoping to get out of today?
Networking questions for someone at a company/organization booth:
Did you have anything you are hoping visitors/attendees take away from this event?
Can you tell me more about what your company does and your role within that?
How could someone hoping to join your organization make themselves stand out?
Networking questions to ask a professional or thought leader in the space:
If you could give one piece of advice for someone trying to follow in your footsteps, what would it be?
Do you have any suggestions or action items for those who attended your lecture?
What are one or two skills that you believe set you apart or allow you to thrive in this space?
After the event, don’t forget to follow up with a thank-you message.
And if you still feel nervous about your next networking step, just remember, be yourself, and be genuine.
“People do business with people they know, like, and trust,” Paper says. “As you build relationships on and off the screen it’s good to be nice, authentic, and sincere. Don’t say you will follow up and send an article if you never do it. Ask if you can connect them to someone from your network and you will gain credibility as a connector. Build a network for the long term.”