“Networking.” As one of the great thought leaders of our time once said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya wasn’t talking about the word ‘networking,’ but he may as well have been. For many of us, just the word ‘networking’ sends us running for the hills. It conjures up images of awkward cocktail hours where you’re expected to insert yourself into conversations with strangers and make small talk about something marginally related to your industry.
But here’s the real story: That’s. Not. Networking. Or, it is, but it’s only one kind of networking. And if it’s not the right fit for you? Don’t do it! Focus on your strengths and spend your precious time networking in a way that is authentic to who you are, and, more importantly, presents you in your best light. What’s the benefit of going to networking events where you feel awkward and uncomfortable the whole time? You won’t make authentic connections. You won’t make a good impression that will lead to opportunities. And you won’t feel good about yourself and your abilities.
Networking, when done right, shouldn't leave you feeling drained. It should remind you of what you have to offer, and help you make connections to the people and places that could use your skills.
Luckily for you, there are many different ways to network. No matter what kind of personality you have, one of these networking strategies will work for you.
Engage Your Hobbies
Join a choir, go to pub trivia, take archery lessons. The more you get out into the community, the more people you will meet. But when you do it in a way that stems from your own interests and passions, you’re more likely to make authentic connections with people you share something in common with. And it won't feel forced and awkward, because the purpose of the interaction isn't 'networking;' it's doing something that you enjoy.
Cultivate Existing Relationships
Your best ‘networking’ connections are the people who already know and love (or at least like) you. Keep those relationships strong by checking in, grabbing coffee, meeting for a playdate or just sending an email. Staying on someone's radar is the best way to make sure that they will think of you if the perfect opportunity comes along. And bonus, you get to hang out or interact with people you like! It's a win-win.
For some of us, part of the discomfort of networking is that we feel uncomfortable asking others for help. So, when we go into an event focused on how other people can help us, it can be deeply unsettling. But, if you go to networking events with the goal of helping someone else make a useful connection, you may feel more comfortable. And when you look back, you'll probably see that you made some good connections of your own in the process. As discussed in this Harvard Business Review article about learning to love networking, “When you think more about what you can give to others than what you can get from them, networking will seem less self-promotional and more selfless—and therefore more worthy of your time."
Speak at Conferences
Lots of people have no problem speaking in front of a crowd, but get incredibly uncomfortable in one-on-one settings. If that’s you, consider applying for speaking gigs at conferences in your field. This way, you don’t have to go up to people and introduce yourself; the people will come to you. Plus, they'll already know your name, and likely will have something to say to start the conversation.
If you’re more comfortable communicating in writing than in person, you’re in luck! You can build networks and communities from your computer or phone. Sure, there’s Facebook, but you can also build communities on Slack, LinkedIn or WhatsApp. You can either search for and join existing groups that interest you, or you can start your own and invite all of your favorite people to join. Either way, thanks to technology, it's possible to create your networks using your skills as a writer, even if you're not exactly a social butterfly in person.
Volunteering is a great way to meet people who share your interests. And guess what ‘meeting people who share your interests’ is? Networking! You don’t even need to volunteer with an organization that has a direct connection to your industry. You never know what connections people have, so do something that you find fulfilling. Meet people, build relationships, and see what opportunities present themselves.
Whether you’re trying to ‘network’ or not, chances are that you interact with other humans, and that, on occasion, those people help you out in some way. Even if it has nothing to do with work, consider sending a thank you note, or even a thank you gift. This is a great way to nurture a new connection, or to strengthen an existing one. If you’re feeling uncomfortable because you don’t know the other person’s tastes that well, try a gifting service like EvaBot, which creates a personalized gift based on a quick AI chat with the recipient.
Networking doesn’t have to be awkward and soul-crushing. You just have to find the right networking strategy for you!