Tips for In-Person Networking

networking-300x172.jpgNetworking? It’s certainly a buzzword these days. Networking itself is defined (on a google search) as interacting within a network and also as interacting with people to exchange information and contacts, primarily to develop one’s career. Yet I would push you to think beyond that to developing others’ careers. But what does it really entail anyway? How do you do it “right”? For starters, there are different types of networking. There’s “online networking” and there’s “in-person networking”. When we think about “In person networking”, the phrases “networking night”, “networking lunch” or “meet ups” may come to mind, but essentially networking has the potential to take place anytime you connect with someone new. Still, for those of us who are introverts, the prospect of public speaking within a large group, talking about our professional hopes and dreams, and our career aspirations can be a little daunting. Especially if we don’t know exactly what we want to do.

How to Prepare

So where do you start? If you are going to an event, get there early. It will provide you time to mingle with others in smaller groups or even one on one if that works better for you. It will give you time to scope the scene to see how the program is structured if you don’t know beforehand. Maybe you prefer to listen to others ask the questions you would. For those as well as those of you who are also a little shy or are new to a field, in it can help to come with a “wingman/woman”. Someone who can break the ice or may be more familiar with the field and can initiate an introduction or two –just make sure you don’t spend all your time with them. Step outside of your comfort zone. It’s tempting, but you can always catch up with them later. I’ve seen done by both “newer people” and from more “experienced people” and it doesn’t come across well for either one. If you can’t show up early, no worries, just come prepared.

  • Whether you are a student or a recent graduate, it stands out if you make cards. It demonstrates you are organized and willing to go that extra step. Services like vistaprint.com or going to a store to buy cardstock to make your own are both affordable options. It’s like making a mini-billboard for yourself, a mini resume. How can you condense what you do into phrases, into key words? These days we are bombarded with online information – having something tangible to walk away with will definitely stand out to people at events
  • If you are looking to break into a field, think of a list of questions
  • Don’t ask if you need credentialing – you can research this online. Instead ask which credentialing body carries more “credibility” in the field or what the difference in pay is. Feel free to ask what they wish they would have known in preparing for credentialing.
  • If you are not sure about the future of a career you are considering, do ask if they see that job changing at all in the near future (sometimes career fields are phased out or merged).

When people start networking it’s often thought of as “Hi my name is ABC and I work at XYZ”.

  • Not at all. Tell someone your name, sure but tell them why you are here. “I’m hoping to learn more about…”, “I’m interested in…”, “I’ve heard you…” shows them that you have put some thought into the event, that you have goals and perhaps that you have done your research. You don’t have to be an expert on a topic. But you will stand out and if you have specific goals you do want to accomplish you can do that. If the person can’t help you at least they have an idea of where they can direct you.
  • That being said, if you notice a connection, let the connection be authentic; it doesn’t all have to be “scripted”
  • When networking, someone who is “experienced in the field” field lots of questions. While you may be the person they favor talking to, know when to step back and let someone else network. Let them ask a question or invite them in the conversation. Not only does it show etiquette it also demonstrates that you are willing to hear other’s ideas and they will appreciate you for it. While not every question is a great question, keep an open mind, sometimes those who are less familiar with a field can provide great insights by questioning things others accept as basic facts.

Meeting New People

Organized networking and ice breakers can sometimes seem “awkward” but if you can put that aside and just participate, you’ll find interesting connections between you and other attendees. It’s like dancing, better to look silly and have fun than sit on the sidelines and be alone. Sometimes it can be so hard to go up to people, especially if they all seem to know each other, but here’s the big secret – they would most likely be just as nervous if they were in your shoes. Networks are so much more than the people that make them up. They are a chance to grow, to share and to build community. If there is someone you know of that does work in your field, chances are there are not too many degrees of separation between you. Don’t be afraid to ask for an introduction, you never know where it may lead. If the person you ask doesn’t feel comfortable, don’t take it personal, perhaps they don’t know the person as well as you think they do.

Practical Tips

Sometimes networking events provide the organizational affiliate on someone’s name badge. If not, no worries – there is your first question – “what type of work do you do?” Other good starter questions include

  • Where do you work?
  • How did you heard about this event?
  • I see you are with… can you tell me a little more about what your organization does?
  • How do you hope to grow your program?
  • Who do you partner with? – If the organization you are interested isn’t hiring or taking unpaid interns, perhaps one of their partner organizations is.

Show interest. Listen. Everyone is an expert at something and they can provide insight into a specific issue that is not being addressed adequately in a field that is generally well-know. Perhaps it is something that would interest you. Remember things. Special Programs, Scholarships, Contacts, etc. If you can’t, make a point to have the other person write it down for you. Bring a pen and paper even if you have a smart phone – it’s always good to have a backup. Too often people limit themselves and get caught up in defining themselves by their job. True, we are what we do, but we also are what we are working towards, what we are passionate about even if we don’t get paid for it. Sometimes people ask questions that can come across the wrong way. For example:

  • How big is your organization? While you may be trying to understand the history and scope of the organization, you may come across as “being too good” for a smaller / newer organization. If your concern is financial stability you should know that it is not always related to organizational size.
  • A better question is when was your organization founded, or even better how did your organization start? How is your organization supported? This will give you a better idea of the community support they have.

Learn to recognize who is there for other reasons and (keeping it professional), know when to check out of a conversation.

  • Sometimes, unfortunately there are people who show up to networking events trying to pick up a date. This is not professional, but it is a reality and you should be aware of it.
  • Sometimes a person attends to support their significant other or their organization, but really doesn’t want to be there. Respect that. Exchange contact info if it makes sense professionally and they are willing, but if they don’t want to participate in networking activities just let them be.
  • Sometimes a person attends an event representing an organization, but makes it obvious they really want to be there. Your time is important, so recognize this and find other people to connect with.
  • Sometimes a person attends specifically to see an old friend, and unfortunately can’t be bothered with you. Don’t take it personally. If they want to connect with you at a later time, they will.

Reasons for Networking

You have to ask yourself, are you networking to gain contacts in a field, for a job or to get referred to organizations that are hiring. The last two have a subtle difference – employees may be more than willing to help you learn more about the ins-and-outs of a field, but may be overwhelmed with requests for jobs currently. Or they might not feel you are a good fit at this point given the limited information they know. People don’t go to events looking to hire, but they do go to seek out a diverse talent and build more community connections. Remember, it doesn’t end with the event. Networking is an action, and every introduction deserves a follow up. Don’t let your contact book become full of unused cards or your notepad list emails that never got used. This is part of being organized and of showing them you valued their time and any resources they may have provided you with. Even sending a simple follow up that says “it was nice to meet you” or “thank you for your time” will go a long way.

Other Types of Networking

One great tool that is underutilized is the informational interview. This is a great way to learn more about a field and whose hiring without putting any pressure on the person in the field you know (because they may not be hiring) while also getting your name out there. If you are at a networking event and want to continue the conversations, this can be a great option. If there is someone you know of, but don’t know really well, it can also be a way to engage with them professionally without the making them feel like you are asking for a job or a commitment to a mentor-mentee relationship. Outside of “formal event networking”, there is also “field networking” or “project-based networking”. One thing a young professional needs to remember is to develop your network. By this I don’t mean just keep meeting new people; rather, remember give back to your network, build bridges among your contacts, connect those who are doing similar work together or have similar areas interests. From time to time you may meet someone doing work or hoping to do work in an area that someone you know does work in and you’ll have a chance to do this. It’s a great way to support their work and stay up to date on the work they are doing. At some point, when you least expect it, the favor will be returned. And if you ever need to organize a networking event or a panel, they will definitely be more open to participating in it. Networking is not about you, it’s about your community. YNPN is a great organization to network and connect with other young nonprofit professionals. YNPN is a national organization with a Seattle Chapter. We meet every first Tuesday at 7pm. Please visit our website. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is going to a networking event? How has networking helped you? Do you know of a networking event in the next couple of months? Please share! Do you have questions about networking? Please post a comment.   Written by Chris Paredes

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