We’re not all blessed with the gift of gab, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to network effectively. Social skills, like anything else, can be practiced! The more you get out in the world, whether physically or virtually, the more you will build confidence in your ability to strike up meaningful conversations with like-minded people.
Networking should not only occur when you need something, and it should not be limited to professional events. There is a rich pool of interesting people out there, and with the right attitude you can cultivate mutually-beneficial relationships. Expand your social circle by trying out these strategies:
1. Reach out to your existing contacts. Many people love to play “matchmaker,” and if they know you’re interested in meeting one of their co-workers, friends, or family members that you share common ground with, they’re often happy to make the introduction.
2. Check out local events. Platforms such as Eventbrite make discovering local events easy. Think about what type of people you want to meet, and then consider the types of events they would attend. Set your geographical radius and then browse the event categories or search for a specific topic. If you attend a presentation, do some research first on the presenter and the topic. It can be daunting to socialize at a presentation, especially when the room layout deters social interaction. Lots of events will offer refreshment tables however, so rather than take a seat right away, strike up a conversation with the other people grabbing coffees.
For instance, it can be as easy as saying, “Hi, I’m Laura. I’m so excited to hear Dr. X’s take on <relevant topic>. What are you most interested to hear about?” Emotions tend to transfer, so show a little enthusiasm and ask an open-ended question to encourage dialogue. An approach like this can open a door for further discussion after the presentation and lead to contact exchange. After the event you can say something like, “I really enjoyed Dr. X’s insights on <point raised in presentation>. What did you think? I’d love to hear more about your opinion on <topic>. Here’s my card if you’d like to chat further.” Not everyone will be receptive, but lots of people enjoy intellectual conversation and friendly debate, so you might meet some future colleagues with this technique. *Note: Chatting is for before and after the presentation only; be a respectful audience member and pay attention to the presenter.
3. Attend networking events. Yes, there are lots of events designed solely for networking! Usually these groups are designated for professionals in specific industries. Check out what’s happening in your profession. But wait, what if there are no networking events for professionals in your industry? Another option is to create an event yourself! Blaze the trail! Think about the issues that are being raised in your industry. Select a date and location and then put out a call to action. Encourage people in your field to meet, share insights, and support one another. Who knows, it could turn into a regular event if enough people are interested!
4. Join groups, clubs, and associations. Regular social interaction with a group can help to boost your confidence! What are you interested in? If you can think it, it’s probably a club. Whether you want to engage with others who share a hobby you love, play sports or board games, or contribute to a community project, you’re out in the world meeting people. If you’re willing to really step out of your comfort zone, then consider joining a community theatre or improv group! Although your group involvement might not be work related, you’ll likely improve upon soft skills that will benefit you in the workplace.
Check out what’s happening in the local chapter of your professional association. Often these associations will host workshops, forums, discussion panels, and networking events. Don’t see much activity in your chapter? Contact the chair and pitch some ideas!
5. Connect with your alumni. It’s a huge network that offers lots of benefits if you’re willing to explore them. You’ll have access to an alumni directory, which you can use to find people you want introduce yourself to and request informational interviews with. Most alumni associations also offer “spotlight” stories on their members, so reach out to them with some interesting content and see if they will feature you in their newsletter or magazine.
6. Volunteer in your community. When it comes to volunteering, my philosophy is that you should select something that you are passionate about. Yes, you might meet people with hiring authority as a result, but your involvement needs to come from a place of sincerity. There is more and more emphasis being placed on creating empathetic workplaces, and volunteering is a good way to develop humility, sympathy, and understanding for others.
7. Enhance your online presence. LinkedIn is the obvious go-to for online professional networking, but there are plenty of other online communities that you can join. For instance, if you are a recent computer science graduate and you want to improve your coding skills while collaborating with other developers then get on GitHub. Or if you have a wealth of information you’d like to share on a specific topic in science or engineering, start answering questions on Quora and build your reputation as the expert. Regardless of the social platform, the key is to engage. Like, comment, share, ask and answer questions in closed groups, and create posts of your own.
Create a networking plan that encompasses a variety of these strategies and you'll be off to the races! The more you get out there and introduce yourself the easier it becomes. I've had great conversations with Uber drivers, people in waiting rooms, and pretty well anywhere there are others. Don't be afraid to say "hello" first!