How I Learned to Network Effectively

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.

My Experience:

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.

What I’ve Learned about Networking:

  • Do some work ahead of time: To ease the awkwardness of networking, try to get a better idea on who will be attending the event. By shooting out a tweet on twitter or reviewing the event page on Meetup or Eventbrite, you can easily find out who will be attending the event. Doing this will help you research some of the attendees and prepare some discussions. Beyond that, you can begin making some early introductions ahead of time via Twitter, which you can then carry that momentum over to the event.
  • Bring a pen and a sheet of paper: In the age of technology, this is something that I think can be overlooked, but never forget a pen and a simple sheet of paper. At any networking event, you’ll have names flying around all night. Using pen and paper is far more easier and less invasive then you grabbing your phone while in mid conversation.
  • Have a drink or two: Having a drink at a networking event is a great way to take the edge off. Everyone is a tad uptight at first, so by having one or two drinks, it will really loosen the mood and make conversing with “strangers” a bit easier.
  • Have a clear purpose for attending: When you network, be sure you come with a clear purpose. Don’t just show up to be a part of the crowd. Arrive with at least three goals. A clear purpose will help you feel more confident in how you move around the room. With no plan, you will simply be awaiting for the next person to say hi. This is where doing work ahead of time can really pay off. If you know someone that you’ve been trying to connect with is going to be at the event based on your prior research, make that introduction with them your first priority.
  • Bring someone else with you: Depending on the size of the event, it may be nice to bring someone else along with you. It goes without saying that this person should be someone that is knowledgeable on the subject. This person could be a business partner or another designer that may be your friend. By having someone else at the event with you, you will not have to feel alone and you can also take advantage of connecting each other with others you have met at the event. This is something Julie and I like to do. It allows us to get far more accomplished when we network. If I know she can help someone, I’ll make the introduction and she can take the conversation from there, and vice versa.
  • Understand what event you are attending: Not all networking events are the same. Some events are great for meeting clients, while other events are best for just peer-to-peer networking. I’m going to be honest, you should spend more time at the events that are peer-to-peer networking. It will be far more natural to you and you’ll be able to help more people. Networking at an event such as the chamber of commerce (although shows your support for the community) will generally not create very lucrative leads in return. If you’re looking to network in order to build a client base join a networking group that focuses on referrals. I was a member of BNI for two years and had great success. Yes, it was an investment as they had dues, but you get what you pay for when it comes to leads.
  • The power is in helping people: People absolutely love to talk about themselves. Try to create dialog by asking questions that focus on them. Getting them to stay focused on themselves, is not a bad thing. As they continue to talk to you, think about the ways you can give away some free advice. Doing this shows that you care and also how knowledgable you may be. Many will connect with you in the future to continue to talk shop. That is when you can make your sale.
  • Don’t have too much fun: Time flies when you are having fun. At networking events people come and go. You want to be sure that you get to everyone you want to connect with. This is why I try to make that my first priority. If you get stuck with someone for too long, end the conversation politely by excusing yourself. If the conversation is worth continuing, perhaps try to arrange a time to meet in the near future. The important thing at a networking event is to make introductions. The meetings happen later.
  • Plan to stick around a while: Don’t be that one guy or girl who “stops in quick” before heading out to another event or on their way home. Spamming the event with your business cards or promotional materials, is just rude. If you plan to attend a networking event, plan to stay a while and make meaningful connections. Besides, that approach will never get you much in return.
  • Make it easy for others to spot you: I used to not really care too much about what I wore to a networking event as long as I was presentable. Nowadays, I’ve learned that it is important to make it easy for others to spot you in the crowd. You never know who may be stopping in to scan the room looking for you. Remember Mark’s white coat? Well, my “white coat” is my hat. I rarely attend an event or meeting without it.
  • Be sure you always follow up: In my opinion, the true power of networking happens after the event. If you meet someone new, make sure you follow up immediately. It’s not just because it is kind to thank them for their time, but because you can build off the momentum and begin to build on the relationship while it is fresh.

My Takeaway:

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?

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