How To: Professional Networking
A few weeks ago, I was asked to be part of a panel focused on networking tips for both undergraduate and graduate students. During the discussion, and after having had a chance to practice networking at SPPAC 2016, there were several suggestions I made to students. These turned into a great discussion with the other panel members, which resulted in some additional suggestions. Networking can be one of the most nerve-wracking things that students need to do as emerging professionals, but it should be one of the most enjoyable things we do. Unfortunately, there isn’t much discussion in courses about successful networking. To help fill that gap, below are my main tips for professional networking.
Quality over Quantity
Before we get into the how, I want to make a major overarching point: the quality of your interactions matters more (overall) than the quantity of them. Many students go into a conference (or other professional event) with a mental list of everyone they would like to meet. This can be fine to have in the back of your mind, but focusing too much on meeting everyone on the list can end up making things more difficult.
To help make my point, consider what the experience is like for you. When you’re at a conference, there are a lot of people you interact with for brief periods of time, all with at least semi-interesting topics to discuss. Now, how many of those people do you remember well enough that you’d think to reach out to them after the conference? Unless you took notes about everyone you met (please don’t, at least not while talking with them), then probably not many.
When networking, you want to be one of the people who is memorable (in a good way) rather than one of the people that is forgotten. If you’re working your way through a list and not taking the time to have a meaningful conversation with someone, then you’ll be easily forgotten. Don’t take the list approach and end up spending a lot of energy hunting people down for little-to-no benefit!
Instead, let’s go over some better approaches that will make you more memorable.
Be a Helpful Presence
Let’s start off with a somewhat counter-intuitive idea: being a presence in the background. Now, of course you don’t want to remain in the background the entire time, but let me explain how this works.
Think about advertisements. Ads that are flashy, obtrusive, get in the way in order to try to get your attention…you end up disliking those ads and trying to avoid them, right? At best they’re pushed away and forgotten, and at worst they are remembered with annoyance. Compare that to a great service that helps make your life easier, only every so often reminding you that it is there. Much less annoying because you’ve found some utility in the service, and it’s putting your needs first, right?
When networking, you want to consider yourself as a sort of advertisement. Coming on too strong and being too obtrusive in a short time won’t help. Instead, be someone who is helpful, someone who people want to meet instead of being forced to meet.
How can you do this? One of the easiest ways is to volunteer. Not only does this put you directly into a role of being helpful, but you also get the opportunity to be helpful for those who help to run the professional group who is coordinating the event. It also gives you opportunities to be seen by many of the attendees without being right in their face.
In the end, you leave people with a good impression. They may not remember exactly who you are after one event, but by continuing to be helpful they will begin to remember you better and better over time. Which leads me to my next point.
Play the Long Game
It can be very easy to have the goal of leaving a professional event with a list of professional contacts who you end up collaborating with very closely. But the reality is never so ideal. You may get some email addresses, but even with follow-up you’ll have little luck forming a meaningful professional relationship this way alone.
Rather than trying to force things to move quickly in the short term, plan on networking being a long-term process. A professional relationship should form on its own over time, rather than being forced.
To do this, don’t only be a helpful presence one time. Try to be a consistent presence in some format over a period of time. Even if you’re simply active on a listserv, have your name in conference programs as a volunteer, show up in an event’s twitter feed, and so forth, you’re establishing a presence. Even if people don’t instantly know who you really are, or how you’ll be a good professional contact, there is a growing sense of familiarity.
But all of this will only work if you follow the next point.
Far too often (even just in my few years as a budding professional), I have seen people put on a game face for a professional event, trying to make themselves sound as good as possible. But ultimately it leads to unnatural interactions that do little to help form a relationship.
How would you feel if someone walked up to you, basically listed off all of the things on their CV, then just asked you to be a professional contact with them? It's the real world equivalent of getting a LinkedIn request right after meeting someone for a few minutes. At best you’d probably think “wow, good for you doing all of those things…but I have no idea who you are.”
Instead, you want to be a person first, and a professional second. You are a human who is interacting with another human, not a company trying to sell services. If you express your personality, connect with others on a more natural level, and basically form a friendship rather than a strictly professional interaction, that will make you much more memorable.
Of course, you don’t want to be too natural. You need to maintain some professionalism, just with personality.
And this does not only apply to direct interactions with others at a professional event. When giving presentations, you want to come across as natural as well. Present information as if you’re having a conversation with the audience instead of reading off of slides (for the love of everything in this world, please never read directly off of your presentation slides).
Just think of the best TED Talks you’ve seen. Are they strictly factual/professional? No. The presenter adds some personality, tells a story, has a conversation (even if one-sided) with you as the listener. And that makes us appreciate the presentation that much more, makes us want to share it with others, makes it more memorable.
This in part happens because it can be such a relief to have a natural interaction with someone at a professional event rather than just a borderline scripted interaction (which is far too common). By being natural, you can make the conversation with someone a good memory for them long after they leave the professional event.
Grow Your Current Network
Now, all of this can get you pretty far. But only if applied in the right way with the right people. For example, many students make the mistake of going up to a person without having an existing connection to that person (even if indirect). This can work, and may be the only way to form connections with some people, but it’s not necessarily the best option.
Instead, it’s much better to grow your network by taking advantage of the connections that you already have. If someone in your current professional network (e.g., your supervisor, other students) can introduce you to someone, that makes you much more memorable.
Just think about walking down the sidewalk with a friend. If a random person came up and started talking to you, it will seem strange and you will remember the strangeness rather than who the person was. Compare that to your friend noticing someone they know walking on the sidewalk, pulling them over to you and then introducing you to the friend. This friend is still a stranger to you, but now the strangeness isn’t present and you’re more likely to remember the actual person.
Growing your network, rather than trying to piece it together with random connections, is very similar. But in order for it to work, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Again, it can be very tempting to try to force your network to grow quickly. That will eventually happen, but first you need to build up some momentum. If your current network is small, you should expect the expansion to be slow at first. As your network grows, so will the rate at which it grows (to the point that you no longer need to put in as much effort to keep it growing as your colleagues will bring new connections to you).
If you try to force it to grow too quickly, that could come at the expense of your current professional relationships. You want to be a good colleague first, not someone pushing people to introduce you to others. Let the connections come naturally, and your professional network will start to grow quickly.
As you can probably imagine, this means that you will want to start the process of growing your network early. Rather than putting off attending conferences and meeting other professionals until you're basically finished with your degree, you want to begin the process as early as possible. That way you'll already have a good network when it comes time for things like applying to jobs (which, let's face it, is much easier when you have connections in places that are hiring).
"But as a student, I don't have anything to talk to the professionals about until I have more training!" Not true. As I stated above, you want to present yourself as a person first and a qualified professional second. You don't want to list off your skills to someone anyway. Just by having a good conversation with them, and talking about your relevant interests, you can make a good impression very early on. The more skill-based parts (e.g., research collaborations) will come later, and you'll have had more training by then.
Don’t Get Too Comfortable
The downside to this approach is that you can get too comfortable with your current network. Growing your network means starting out with your current colleagues and then expanding out. But at a professional event, when anxiety may be running high and you may be seeing some colleagues for the first time in a while, it can be tempting to just spend time with them. But if you do that, your network is unlikely to grow.
You’ll need to find a good balance between maintaining your current network and pushing it to grow. It’s not easy, but can be done if you’re mindful of how you’re doing it. Just have some check-ins with yourself during the event to make sure you’re not getting too comfortable, and you should be fine!
Finally, you don’t want to only rely on others to introduce you to new people. Instead, you also want to try to become a person who introduces people to each other. By doing so, you can strengthen your current network. You also make it more likely that others will return the favor, put yourself in a position of being able to meet new people more easily, and you establish yourself as a helpful presence. (Nice how things come full circle, huh?)
Professional networking can be daunting, but it by no means needs to be. By taking things slowly, being yourself, and putting less emphasis on meeting people and instead focusing on meaningful conversations, you can make networking fun! It will also get easier over time as you gain exposure, people become more familiar with you, and so on.
If you’re not sure where to start, then try volunteering at a professional event. Try to become active with others on things like listervs or even twitter. Just find a way to be present that’s natural to you and your interests, and build from there.
Have questions or comments about this topic or any of my points? Let me know in the comments!