‘Networking is pretty much like sex: the more you do it, the easier it gets and the better you get at it,’ as argued by a friend who chose to remain anonymous.
Networking is often perceived as a key part of the public relations skills set. So I asked my own network what they thought of it and compiled some of their thoughts, along with some of my own, below.
“The internet/social media has made it easier for people to think they are making friends with the contacts they make rather than the more personable scenario of meeting with a group of well-intentioned people, face-to-face” (Kerry Sheehan).
While that may be the case, virtual networking works for some of us as an add-on that cannot outweigh the benefits of a face-to-face encounter: “Nurturing a virtual network which overlaps with your real life network, but is broader and borderless, can be extremely useful too” (Maja Pawinska Sims)
Today, many “network” because this is their “job” – constant push, relentless sale pitches, hoping and praying that by shoving their business card in front of a complete stranger, they will remember how great they were!
While networking can be difficult for some, Mary Whenman argues that “It’s a learned skill for most people. Don’t assume everybody else is way more confident than you when they walk in the room.”
Is there a one paragraph silver bullet solution to getting the networking conundrum right? Chris Lines appears to have found it:
“Networking is about being social. It’s about being human. People do business with people before products or organisations so, if you stand out and impress as a person, your offer will also impress. Good networking comes from an open attitude where you are genuinely interested in others and will listen to their stories. Bad networking is where sincerity and authenticity are lacking.”
“Standing out” and “impressing” are hard – asking personal questions or finding something common to relate to may be even harder. I, for one, would never walk up to someone and start talking about the weather, outfits, body sizes etc. – why? Oh, well … if the only conversation starter I can find at a professional event is “the weather”, then I might just as well not turn up to it.
Edwin Seranno nails it: “Networking and building a business or a brand are synonymous. Don’t wait around and wait for someone to approach you. Simply get the conversation started by walking up to a person or a group, and say, “May I join you?” or “What brings you to this event?” or reach out online and ask how you can help.”
If you’re at a dinner party, you can talk about your hosts’ outfits or how lovely (or not) the food and entertainment were. If you are at an event where you are expected to impress and stand out, don’t take it literally – you can also impress by turning up naked.
In-person interaction or dialogue (I just hate the word “networking”) is an art:
“Face-to-face networking is one of the most powerful tools available to any communicator. It can add significant value to a communicator’s personal reputation, improve competitive awareness and underpin business growth opportunities” (John Neilson).
I’m not the only one who has an issue with the implications of the word “networking” – Colin Kelly does, too: “to me it means something much less honest. I don’t like it, don’t do it and don’t see the point of it in an age where it so easy to express yourself and find people.”
However, Alex Malouf argues that “when done well, networking can help to develop skills, promote a better understand of the external environment and transform a career. Networking isn’t just finding a person whom you can benefit from. It’s about building relationships where you give as much as (or more than) you get in return.”
And Alex is right – networking is a two-way street: you must give something to get something. Funnily enough, I have found that the best way to get something is to ask for absolutely nothing in return. Just keep accruing as much good will as you can, build a relationship and, when the time comes, you’d be surprised how much you’ll get back.
It’s amazing what happens when you do it right. Walk up to someone, introduce yourself (by name only) and keep your job title and employer to yourself for a while. Provide them only if you’re asked. If you blurt them out in the first 5 seconds after saying “hello”, you have pretty much shown your entire hand.
Do you know why? Because we all are very quick to judge and pigeonhole. If someone thinks your job title is too “small”, they are highly likely to totally dismiss what you’re saying, regardless how profound that might be. If they’ve never heard of the company you work for, you’re also pretty much a “no one” because anyone who is “someone” would work for a household name.
At the other end of it, if your job title is too impressive or you work for a well-known company, you may find that many interlocutors would simply latch onto you. They won’t want to let you go and, in less than three minutes, you’re likely to get a tirade of “you need someone like me/our business because we are so totally amazing, and you haven’t seen anything like us before”.
While that may be true, there’s a time and a place for business/employment pitching – networking is not one of those: “I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking they need to sell their product/company at every opportunity. That’s not the only reason for creating conventions and it rarely works. Creating a relationship with people is a much better strategy to finding long-term value in your network.” (Sara Collinge)
A very useful “how to” and “how not to” was offered by Darryl Sparey:
* Remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and try and use them in that ratio
* Give to get, and give first – whether that’s offering personal details about yourself or experience, offering to help someone with a particular challenge they have, or make an introduction for someone
* remember names – make sure when you’re introduced to someone that you remember their name; if you didn’t catch it or aren’t sure, ask again; a trick to remembering names is to say it three times to someone within a minute of being introduced
* have a short, simple explanation of who you are, where you work, and what you do – nothing too long, absolutely no buzzwords, acronyms or jargon
* stay in touch – LinkedIn and Twitter are great tools for staying in touch with people after meeting them for the first time
* spend any time with anyone that refers to meeting new people as “networking”; they’re probably the kind of people you’d swim across the Thames to avoid being stuck in a lift with
* be afraid to move on to talk to new people – have an excuse, like “there’s someone here I must speak to” and move on
* try and sell something to someone or ask for anything on a first introduction – you can amortise the value of a relationship on a longer timeframe than five minutes
* forget to be a human first, and someone who works for or represents a company or organisation second”
Many of us, for whatever reason and with no judgement passed, do approach this human-to-human interaction as a means to an end. Often, this “means” is a job. Many got one, others hope to:
“Networking can open career doors! Statistics show it’s the best way to secure a new job as you can be exposed to roles which would not ordinarily be advertised online or in other places” (Kerry Sheehan)
“Networking, and networking alone, enabled me to move from Boston to Hawaii, and wind up with the absolute best job in my entire career as a public relations professional. I reached out to members of the Hawaii Chapter, Public Relations Society of America, who met with me, offered “local” job-hunting advice, and, ultimately, directed me to the Blood Bank of Hawaii and a career-defining job.” (Kirk Hazlett)
As someone who has attended many public events (that’s how I call them), I’m always surprised at the number of people whose second sentence is: “WHO are you with?” or “WHO do you work for?”. I don’t know if you are doing it or know someone who does it. But it’s impolite and inappropriate.
Our value as human beings supersedes a job title or a potential employer. What happens if a new parent – who had given up his/her well-paid job as a high-flying Executive of a large company – hasn’t been working in the past 2-3 years because (s)he wanted to see his/her baby become a toddler? Does the fact that (s)he’s unemployed for the moment make him/her worthless or of a lesser value? Absolutely not.
This same scenario can apply to every one of us, for a variety of reasons – talk to the person, not to the job title. Understand what makes the person tick first, then consider whether you want to have a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. Sell your common sense and decency first – without these, it’s hard to sell anything else.
“No one ever teaches you how to network. You are just expected to pick it up naturally – which many do successfully. But it is left to natural raw ability to work a room, which can leave some people intimidated or not able to build up connections simply because they lack confidence, or say the wrong thing, or make the wrong impression.” (Matt Clements)
Keith Lewis argues that networking is a “crucial part of all our lives but whether it’s in real life or online, it is always good to start with an idea of what you want to get out of it. That then helps you gain a benefit from it rather than playing everyone’s game, or just filling time.”
At the opposite end, Colin Kelly disagrees with Keith’s approach: “in a business that relies entirely on relationships [PR], I’m highly suspicious of anyone who ‘networks’ in a deliberate concerted way. It suggests relationship because there’s something you’ve pre-determined that you want from it.”
Today it may be that “networking is everything” – as Rob Gage argued. I don’t think that’s entirely the case, simply because mingling with others or being seen at events are not necessarily indicators of one’s worth, brilliance, employability or business prowess.
Interacting and listening, offering advice and support, saying something really intelligent after just having listened to a speech, debate or presentation matter much more, and make a lasting impression.
The online space everyone uses and abuses these days is not a place of “networking” – it’s a place of interaction and, for some, of observation and reaction.
My only piece of advice on “networking” is below. Someone far wiser and much more forgiving than I could ever be said it:
A version of this article first appeared at EllaMinty.com