Early in my career while working in Washington, DC, it seemed like every day, I’d receive an invite to an event, panel discussion, or happy hour. Unfortunately, the thought of attending all (or any) of these events made me cringe.
I’ve always been a pretty strong introvert, and networking can be painful for me. I’d attend an event only to find myself leaning against the wall and scrolling through my phone; anything to avoid talking to people.
For months, I avoided networking altogether. But that summer, I saw examples of how networking was paying off for my peers:
- My roommate found a new job through a mutual friend.
- My mentor had one of his friends write a $5,000 corporate check to sponsor a new program to bring business opportunities and jobs to an emerging neighborhood.
- A coworker used her contacts in media and PR to run a campaign that got millions of impressions for our nonprofit.
Whatever I felt about networking, people around me were using their networks and reaping the rewards. And so I decided to figure out a way to grow my network in a way that was true to my personality.
With a lot of research and some uncomfortable experimentation, I developed a system that works for me. Here’s what I figured out:
Most events aren’t worth your time
Over the course of eight months, I read nearly 20 books on networking. As I tested the more traditional advice of attending events and bringing lots of business cards, I found that it wasn’t always how I could benefit from networking with many of the people I was meeting, or how I could be a professional resource to them, as well. As a result, the people I met at events rarely turned into long-term connections.
There’s a couple reasons why I think that’s the case:
People at events are excited and distracted.
- At events, there are a dozen other things to pay attention to besides you. With people walking past, new faces entering the room, and the excitement of the program, most of the people you meet will be distracted. Much better to meet someone in a relaxed setting where you can get to know one another.
The quality of your relationships outweighs quantity.
- Events are all about how many people you can meet. Encounters rarely go deeper than small talk and exchanging business cards. You can try following up after the event if things go well, but when I tested this approach it yielded lackluster results.
- Of all the supportive, long-term relationships I have in my network, not one of them came from meeting someone at an event.
You want deep relationships where people remember you, look to you for help, and help you when you need it. Events aren’t always the best place to begin these relationships.
If you have to attend an event like an annual meeting or a big conference, focus on the ways you can provide value to your new connections. In your conversations, you should try to listen and ask questions 80% of the time and only talk about yourself 20% of the time. Always focus on the other person.
Even if you meet someone more experienced than you, you can still provide value by asking what they’re working on, offering to volunteer, giving your feedback on a project, offering to write a testimonial, or following up on how the project is going in a few weeks’ time.
In general, these in-depth conversations about programs are difficult to have at an event. More likely, you’ll need to find another time to grow your network in a more relaxed and focused way.
If you don’t go to events, where do you meet people?
I’ve found there are two main ways to meet interesting people and develop strong professional relationships.
Method #1: Project-based networking
The first way is to have an interesting project you’re working on and ask for help on a specific problem. You can approach your friends, colleagues, and mentors to tell them about the problem. Ask them to point you in the right direction with something along the lines of, “Do you know anyone who might be able to help me with this?”
Once you’ve got recommendations, you can reach out via email. Here’s the outreach template that I use:
"Hi [First Name],
[Referrer’s Name] recommended we get in touch. I’m currently working on [project title], with a lot of great [benefits of your project]. It’s still in the early phases and I’d love to get your input since you know so much about [their expertise/industry].
In the past, I’ve worked on [previous past accomplishment]. My work has been featured/awarded in [name any awards/press/conferences/recognition you’ve gotten - to show that you’re legitimate and not just another person asking for their time].
I’m writing to see if you’d be willing to answer a few questions I have about [specific problem]. It shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, and it would help me out a ton. Can we schedule a 20 minute meeting when you have some availability? I'd be happy to come to you if that makes things easier.
Hope to hear from you soon,
As you can see from the template, a good email is short, establishes your credibility, mentions a connection you have, and has a specific ask at the end. It shouldn’t take more than two minutes for the recipient to read the email. In addition to my template, Idealist has 13 helpful email templates you can use while job searching.
The benefit of what I call “project-based networking” is that you won’t have to come up with icebreakers or conversation topics when you meet the person. You have a clear topic at hand; working on the project or problem. You also have a built-in reason to follow up with the contact, letting her know how the project is going and how her advice helped. Follow-up like this is key to building a strong network.
The hard part about this approach is you have to have a project worth talking about, and it shouldn’t be something personal. If you don’t have an interesting project at work, you can start your own project on the side to give you some networking fodder.
The key to this approach is the ongoing follow-up. When you receive advice, let the person know you used the advice and how it went. It can result in making your coaches and new connections feel valued and invested in the project.
Method #2: Meet people by volunteering
The second way I’ve found to build my network is to volunteer to work on a committee, event, or project.
Event organizers and industry associations are always looking for volunteers to help with committees and events. This can be great ways to show off your expertise and work ethic while working on a team with more seasoned professionals.
There are also numerous academic and trade associations spanning from the American Marketing Association to the African Studies Association that would likely welcome help with their events and programs. Just find an organization in your niche or that fits your interests and see if they need help!
By volunteering for an event, meeting, or committee, you’ll get access to event attendees as well as the speakers. In this way, you get to interact with experts and key professionals. When you help out, introduce yourself to everyone and work hard to make a distinctive contribution. There’s no special trick to this method, just consistent effort. When you volunteer to help organize a conference or sit on committees, you have the opportunity to show other successful people that you’re good at what you do. They will remember you for that.
When I started implementing these systems, my network grew in quality relationships. I soon became more invested in these relationships, and began offering testimonials for programs, serving as a reference for a job application, and helping others create LinkedIn accounts. Although I was meeting fewer people, I found that over time the people I did meet offered me mentorship, access to their own networks, and even job opportunities.
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About the Author | Bennett Garner runs Comfortable Conversation where he writes about how to land a new job, talk to anyone, and build a career you love. For Idealist readers, Bennett is offering free access to his insider’s toolkit, which includes a Networking Checklist with step-by-step instructions to implement the tactics in this post.