Now to be completely honest, I’m not as great of a networker as I wish I was. In fact, I left that conference (like I do many events) wishing I had networked more. I’m great in small crowds, but by nature I’m a tad introverted. However, even though I have room to grow, I do feel like I have learned a few things so far in my career about networking that I would like to share with you all.
The tips that I’m going to share are either from my own experiences, or from observing others. My goal for this lesson is to try to not share tips that are pretty obvious in nature. Such as, “Be sure you have enough business cards.” However, if you want some basic pointers, I’d be happy to help you. Just aks.
I feel like at any networking event, the room is split between those who are networking and those who are spectators standing in awe at the progress of those who are actually networking. I used to lean heavy on the spectators side of the room. The feeling was very similar to gym class in grade school. I would watch all the “cool kids” playing basketball, while I waited and wondered when and if they were going to ever toss me the ball and say, “Come join us!”
However, all of the above changed one day when I met a guy named Mark. Mark owned (it has since been purchased) one of the fastest growing interactive firms in the city. He invited Julie and I to his yearly networking event that was to celebrate their successes and to say thanks to all of their clients and partners for the great year. To him this was another great milestone year. For me it was the exact day I had an aha moment regarding my struggles with networking.
Not only did I learn an incredible amount by just observing Mark and his co-founders “work the room,” but I also realized that the reason why I was always a spectator in the room is because I was never taught how to network. My college (and many others) focused a ton on giving me the confidence to present my designs, but they never taught me about networking. So that day I decided to get educated.
I began by just watching. Mark had on a white suite coat, which I am sure he was wearing purposefully in order to stand out in the crowd. As I watched, I quickly realized that the difference between me and Mark was that Mark had a clear purpose and set of goals for being at this event. Yes, he was throwing the event (which I learned later, his partner was doing most of the hosting duties), but he clearly had a game plan. He didn't just show up and say, “Okay I’ve got to go network a little.” He came prepared. I’ve since learned that whenever I come prepared for an event I’m more confident. What generally makes someone nervous, is not knowing what to expect. For most, that will lead to them retreating inward, in search of familiarity. I am no different.
As the night went on, I noticed many differences in the way Mark handles himself at an event, verses myself. Beyond just Mark’s professionalism when he would meet people, I found out that Mark was not networking for himself. Mark was networking for everyone in the room. What looked at first like him getting to know people, was actually him connecting people with one another. Or sharing his contacts and knowledge with those who were interested in knowing more. You may be asking why does this matter? Well, what I have found with many great networkers is that they never really go to networking events focused completely on themselves. They go to them also thinking about their network and with the intent to help others in the room. This in turn will create a desire to meet new people and build trust and credibility as they have conversations with those new faces.
The other thing that I noticed about Mark, was that he was never without a drink in his hand, nor was he ever shy about asking to buy a drink for someone else. Now don’t take this the wrong way, Mark was not drunk, he was simply taking the edge off. Sure, you can go too far and drink one too many beers and leave a bad impression, but most of us can handle a drink or two. We’re talking just enough to take the edge off and loosen up to focus on having a good time not on the work left at the office.
Now, we all have our own “Mark’s” that we can relate to, so whenever you experience yourself falling into that role of spectator I’d ask yourself, “What would 'Mark' do?” I hope these tips below are beneficial to your growth as a networker, and please remember, it takes time and practice. The more events you go to the better you will become.
I’ve gone to dozens of networking events. Some small, some large, some I should have never wasted my time on and others I wish the host would throw every week. Before learning how to network, I always viewed networking events as a chore and would go with the intent to sell myself. In some ways I saw them as a distraction towards me perfecting my design craft. Perhaps this was me making excuses for my fear of attending them.
Nowadays, I view design conferences and networking opportunities much differently. I’ve learned to see them for what they are: a great opportunity to get to know some new people and provide them with an ear to share their stories with. I also get to see what great things my peers have been doing lately. This provides me with an opportunity to perhaps help them or learn something new from them. All of this contributes to the burst of energy and motivation to keep reaching my goals as a designer.
Now like I said earlier, I have not mastered this skill yet, but whenever I find myself feeling a little nervous or intimidated, I take a deep breath, relax, step back and look at the whole room. By doing so, I quickly realize that the majority of the people in the room are there for the same reason. To meet someone they have never met before. So my odds are pretty high that they will want to chat with me when I introduce myself.
Communication is important to me. What are some of the tips that you use while networking at an event?