We hear so much about the importance of your network these days, in your career, for winning funding, for selling… even dating and finding yourself a life partner uses networking skills. It’s easier than ever to make connections at a superficial level, especially online and through social media.
How do you turn your connections into a network of relationships that really help you move towards your goals?
How do you grow those connections when you want to expand your horizons and find people with different perspectives and expertise?
I used to hate the idea of networking – especially in the context of going to an event or a conference where I was supposed to network to make business contacts. I’d often find myself standing by the drinks, on my own, feeling unpopular, like the only person in the room that wasn’t deeply engrossed in conversation, or worrying that I hadn’t picked up enough business cards to get the most from the event.
What changed for me was a change in perspective on networking. Rather than thinking of it as something I had to do to make superficial small talk and hope that some of it turned into longer-term contacts that might be of use someday, I changed it into a research project. Whether it was market research or personal research, finding a purpose for approaching people and a reason to speak to them, and most importantly – a question to ask them which opened them up and got them talking (more about that later), suddenly networking became much easier.
Over the last few years, I’ve used my network to find myself a new job in a new field at the other end of the country, I’ve helped academics build research bids with record numbers of partners, and I’ve also met (and married) the love of my life – all through the connections in my network.
Here are my top tips for growing and making use of your network:
1. Know what you want
Why do you want to grow your network? What do you want from it? Do you want to find a new job? Or sell people your products? Or find a group of like-minded people you can bounce ideas off? Knowing these things allows you to be more targeted in where you go, who you approach and the types of relationships you build.
I find it useful to think of my network as a group of contacts that can help me (and that I can help) to my goals. Different people bring expertise and perspectives which help in different areas (and you don’t always know what you get from who!).
2. Ask for advice and feedback
If you had could access advice about the things want to do, what would you ask? What would it be useful to know right now, which would help you move one step closer to achieving that goal?
Asking a for help can be a great way to build a link and start a conversation with people you know as well as people you don’t. While it often feels like we should have all the answers before we put ourselves out there, framing our first step as “research” and asking for advice from people we know can be an easy first step which gets us going and allows us to practice talking about our interests with supportive people. There’s nothing more powerful than putting yourself out there, making a statement to the world about what you want, and asking the world to help.
When I started looking for a new job, I initially approached friends and connections who had jobs I was interested in. I asked them about what they did on a day to day basis, what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy. This achieved two things – it helped get a better idea of the sorts of jobs that were out there that I might like to do, and it got me used to talking to people I knew about the fact that I was looking for a job.
As you have these conversations and discover out others’ perspectives, it’s important to step back and reflect. Consider if you’re satisfied with the answers you have and if your questions need to change. At the same time reflect on what’s given you the most success in developing links and finding out useful information from people. Evolve your new questions based on this reflection.
3. Ask for connections
An easy way to expand your reach beyond your current network is to ask that network for recommendations of other people to talk to. It’s amazing how much expertise you can reach when you expand your network to that of your friends and family too, let alone their network’s network.
Each time you have a conversation with someone about your interests and your research, follow up with the question “who do you know that can help me explore this even further?”. Encourage them to identify a couple of people that they could introduce you to in follow up to the conversation.
For this to work best, it helps if the other person understands what information you’re looking for and that you’ve had a good conversation with them. They will need to trust you to link you up to their connections.
4. Develop your elevator pitch
When someone asks you what you do, then you need to be prepared to tell them in a short and succinct way. You should give enough information for them to get an impression of you while leaving scope for them to ask questions and get into the detail if they are interested. You should be able to describe what you do in a way anyone can understand in less than a minute. While you do this you gauge what they might be interested in knowing more about by how they react, and by the questions they ask. This way you don’t spend ages talking to someone trying to explain something they don’t really understand anyway and can focus on connecting with them over common interests.
5. Look for interest groups
Think carefully about where people might go who have common interests or have the answers to the questions you have. Are there online groups or local groups which have groups of people either addressing a similar challenge or who can help you answer your questions.
Your questions give you a starting point for conversation and a purpose, through which you can quickly find out if the person you’re talking to can help you out or not.
6. Aim for quality rather than quantity
While having loads of connections can be a great boost for your ego, making you feel popular if the person won’t remember you if you run into them again in the future, then that person really isn’t much use to you.
So when you meet someone it’s much better to take the time to get to know them and give them time to get to know you, than to flit around, meeting lots of people, trying to be the most popular person in the room.
7. Be interested in others.
Are you nervous or worried that people may not find you interesting? That you’ll run out of things to say and they’ll find you boring? I’ll share my secret with you: everybody likes to talk about themselves. All you need to do to come across as an interesting person during a new interaction is to listen and ask questions.
Consider this for a moment: have you ever met someone new and had a conversation when all they’ve done is talk about themselves, showing very little interest in you. People often do this when they’re nervous – they churn out a constant stream of information, babbling away to try to appear interesting, whereas what actually happens is that they turn people off by only appearing to be interested in themselves and their own views and opinions.
When someone is truly interested in you they will ask questions about you and adapt the follow-up responses and questions based on your answer. So the secret to being interesting is to listen to people and be interested in them. Once you understand a bit more about who you are talking to you can adapting your elevator pitch and questions based on what you’ve learnt about them, showing that you’re listening and that you’re really interested. In this way, you’ll build meaningful deeper connections – and build a resilient network.
8. Be helpful, add value
It’s important that you give as well as take from your network. People tend to reciprocate, meaning that if you do things for them and add value to their world they are much more likely to be responsive to you.
How do you know how to add value for an individual? Again listening is a key skill here! If there’s something you can offer to help them out then do so. Sometimes this can be the smallest thing too, that takes very little effort for you, but delivers huge value to them. I often find myself connecting two people in my network who I know are interested in similar things – all it took for me is an intro – and before you know it a new productive relationship has emerged.
9. Get their contact details
It’s so common to think that the most important thing to do when you meet someone is to give them your details. However, this then gives them the control in following up – putting you in the waiting seat until they find the chance to get in touch.
If you meet someone who you would like to speak to again, and who could have useful info to follow up on, then make sure you get their details. This gives you some control, allowing you to initiate the follow-up and significantly increases the chances of that connection being made.
If they don’t have a business card, then use a piece of paper, your phone, connect on Linked-In or find some other way to make sure that you have an influence on the follow-up. And if they aren’t keen to give you their details then take this as feedback that you’ve not managed to light enough of a spark in this person and its unlikely things will progress any further.
10. Have fun and keep it light – don’t take it personally!
Building a network is about connecting with people and building relationships. The more fun you can have with it and the less seriously you can take it, the more you’ll find people are drawn to you.
When meeting new people it can be easy to take things personally and feel rejected if you don’t click or if someone doesn’t follow up with you. While it’s worth reflecting on what’s working and what doesn’t it’s also worth recognising that everyone you meet is in their own challenging world, which you have no idea about. You’re unlikely to know just how busy they are, how much pressure they’re under, what’s happening in their personal life or anything about how they will react beyond your meeting. So if they do a disappearing act, or don’t follow up – let it go and move on. It’s their loss! Move on, have fun and enjoy meeting some more people!
I hope you find these tips useful and make networking easier and more enjoyable for you. Do you have other tips that you can add? If so please do share them below!