When I was a bright-eyed 22-year-old college graduate, I emailed my resume to hundreds of companies hoping to break into public relations. I landed a job at the only PR firm that called to interview me because I knew someone who worked there.
Years later when I was freelancing, my network helped me pay the rent. When I moved to a new city, networking helped me meet new friends. Today, networking and relationship building is more important for me than ever, whether I'm trying to find new client leads or place stories in the media for my clients.
It's been one of my goals to get out there and meet new people all while maintaining my existing network. Many of you can relate to the fact that isn't easy. Despite my bubbly, quirky exterior, I'm an introvert. That statement might surprise many who know me, but I have disciplined myself over the years to get over it. Networking takes time, energy and focus, but it pays off. Here are the tips and tricks I've learned to make the process easier and more effective.
1. Be genuine: Sometimes you can be so overwhelmed or focused on an end goal (i.e, meet two qualified client leads) that you come across as awkward. I find that simply being myself helps mitigate potential awkwardness. Plus, when you're meeting new people, they want to get a sense of who you really are. Let your light shine!
2. Focus on image: I like to put on a power suit or dress that makes me feel my most confident. When you look good, you'll feel and appear more confident. Plus, image really does matter. If your pants are wrinkled and your shirt is stained, people will focus on that instead of your killer business idea or great conversational skills.
3. Ask questions: People LOVE to talk about themselves. I've found that the easiest way to make someone like you is to ask great questions and be genuinely interested in them. Plus, by asking questions, you'll be guiding the conversation as opposed to talking at your new contact.
4. Make eye contact and SMILE: This might seem like common sense, but I can't tell you how many times I've met people who don't do these two simple things. If your eyes are darting around the room, it tells me that you're looking for someone more important. If you forget to smile, it says you'd rather be anywhere else. Focus on being present.
5. Don't be afraid to go alone: Networking events are intimidating, so people often bring someone else to lean on as a crutch. But having a crutch might prevent you from opening up to new people. I like to go to networking events alone because I never know who I'll talk to. It makes the possibilities endless.
6. Always carry business cards: Your kid's softball game or a friend's BBQ could unexpectedly turn into a networking opportunity. You never know who you'll meet.
7. Be a connector: Do a favor before you ask for one. Connect people who you think will benefit from knowing each other. Share knowledge without expecting anything in return. If you can bring something to the table for a new or existing connection, they'll likely return the favor.
8. Know when to gracefully exit the conversation: We've all been there before - you're stuck in a long conversation with someone who isn't likely to provide value in your network (and vice versa). I like to find a natural pause in the conversation, and then say, "It has been such a pleasure chatting with you. I am going to mingle with more folks around the room, but here's my card and do keep in touch." It's an honest, straightforward approach that doesn't make you seem rude.
9. Ask for new contacts: From time to time, I'll ask people in my network if they know of other people with similar interests who I should meet. Meeting new contacts through mutual connections is much easier than finding them on your own.
10. Follow up: Don't let those business cards just sit on your desk. I connect with each new person I meet on LinkedIn and send a personalized, thoughtful email within 24 hours. I like to find a relevant article to share, include some anecdote from our conversation and comment on an aspect of their business. I've found most people to be responsive with this approach. Once the new connection responds, I ask them to meet one-on-one for coffee, lunch or drinks. And every once in awhile, I'll comb through my network to follow up with people. Sometimes that means we schedule an in-person get together, sometimes it's a phone call to catch up, but most of the time it's an email or Facebook post. And that's OK. Just stay in touch however you can.
11. Network online AND offline: Use LinkedIn and Twitter to meet new people. Is there someone on Twitter in your industry that you admire? Let them know and ask them to coffee. I've met many friends and valuable business connections through social media.
12. Create your own events: If you don't like going to networking events or want something new to augment the events you're already going to, create your own! In 2012, I realized that I knew a lot of powerful women in my industry. I decided to start a monthly dinner club and encouraged these women to invite others into the circle. While it lasted, it was a great success. I usually hosted between 20 - 30 women each month. It was a great way to connect people and meet new contacts myself.
What are your favorite tips for networking? Share them in the comments.