Networking 101: A Definitive Guide
There’s something inherently slimy about the term ‘networking’. Cringe.
The very word makes students quiver in fear and professionals roll their eyes, undoubtedly because there is something inherently superficial and contrived about ‘networking events’.
Building professional relationships, or ‘Networking’, is however potentially the sharpest tool available for anyone stepping out of the university cave, and heading into that illustrious – yet somewhat ominous – business sphere. The potential benefits of successfully forming new business relationships, creating contacts and generating future career opportunities are therefore immeasurable.
For some of us, the concept of networking can elicit feelings of confidence, optimism, determination and promise (and not just at the hope the canapés will be plentiful). To others however, the concept is perceived as an artificial interaction with a complete stranger driven by professional pursuits…and is thus about as appealing as being slowly lowered into a vat of acid whilst listening to Justin Bieber.
A simple web search will produce numerous articles attempting to best quantify networking as an art form. In practice however, successful networking is about as precise an art as a Jackson Pollock painting.
The art of networking comes naturally to some and will forever evade others. For those falling into the latter, scrambling for any available advice to glean and put to practice, don’t fret because we’ve got your back. We have come up with a list of strategies you can use to best handle the choppy (sometimes nauseating) seas of the networking event.
Let’s get down to business.
Be yourself, you’re the best, blah blah blah ew.
This old horse has been flogged time and time again, for good reason. The ephemeral smarmy nature of networking is purely because of it’s simulated nature. Just think of networking in it’s literal sense; it’s about making connections, whether they are strong or weak is up to you. A network is underpinned by reciprocity. As students, where we lack the professional repertoire and experience, we make up for in wide-eyed enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge on our quest to discover how on earth you break into the seemingly impenetrable professional nebulous. Authenticity and projecting your genuine (professional) self is key to developing these connections should you wish to gain a future mentor-ship, potential work experience and even a job (should you wish to leave the parallel magical land where students dwell).
There are definitely clauses attached to the age-old ‘be yourself’ mantra. For instance, in professional scenarios you want to be putting your best foot forward, just make sure it’s a clean, nice-smelling, knowledgeable, confident, polished and inoffensive foot.
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
Whilst you want to remain true to your own sense of style and be comfortable, it’s essential to represent yourself in business situations in a professional manner.
Now, as much as your roommate might be accustomed to seeing you in that oversized Kill Bill tee eating Nutella out of the jar with no pants on, a networking event is perhaps not the best time to show this side of yourself.
So, whilst the notion of putting on a suit, skirt, shirt, leather shoes and anything falling under the category of corporate attire may make you dry retch, it really is time to just suck it up and suit up. You’ll look cleaner, neater, and it’ll make you feel confident knowing you’re on your A-game. Without feeling the need to look like you’re attending a royal wedding or the Academy Awards, try and look and embody your (professional) best. Your employers WILL expect it from you and since you’re meeting a potential employer- now’s the time to start looking smart.
“How do I make the approach without coming off predatory/incredibly awkward?”, you might ask.
We can provide you with countless blog articles, journal articles and expert advice, which may all be rendered completely and utterly useless in the moment of ‘the approach’. The best advice is as follows:
Do your research. It is now widely acknowledged, and verging on socially acceptable, to allude to past stalkings (of the online variety only, please). LinkedIn is a gold mine of invaluable nuggets of personal information. Read up on each representatives’ professional repertoire including: previous employers, positions and their interests. Don’t be shallow by only evaluating each representative for their current role, you may discover that someone has an incredibly diverse and extensive resume with previous positions that align with your interests.
DO NOT ask to connect with them pre-emptively, that is above and beyond an acceptable level of audacious student behaviour.
You are attending in a professional capacity, but be sure to remember that these reps are indeed human. They will quickly tire of answering a regurgitation of stock-standard questions, so make an effort to be engaging and ask personalised questions from conversational cues.
Just walk right on up to them. Don’t wait to be introduced, in these circumstances it won’t happen. The representative will have some degree of compassion for your nerves, it’s up to you to prevent them from overpowering you and cramping your style. Speak about your academic pursuits; why you’re studying what you’re studying, what you really want to do, and any extracurricular interests you may have (that are relevant…so Youtube-ing cats, maybe not?). Make sure you listen, really listen, to what the rep has to say because when you actually respond accordingly, using your emotional intelligence, conversation will flow.
Here’s a video that may prove useful in the projection of your own personal brand, because ultimately you’re selling yourself, so you’d better have a decent understanding of your own value proposition.
Finally, it’s a networking night so make the most of the exposure to the professionals that you otherwise wouldn’t have. There’s plenty of time to catch up with mates over a flat white at uni, this isn’t a primary school disco, where you stand in a huddle giggling and emanating awkwardness. Being bold takes courage and confidence, but don’t shy away because these soft skills are truly invaluable. Go forth and conquer!
The Mehrabian formula is frequently referred to in the business context as body language and facial expression being 55% of communication between two people. Tone of voice and expression accounted for 38%, with only 7% of communication attributed to the spoken word. Regardless of the numerical mumbo jumbo, body language and the way you express yourself is crucial to effective and positive communication.
Posture: No one interprets you as confident or engaged when you’re hunched over like you should be at the top of a tall tower in France ringing a bell. Show confidence and assertiveness by standing up straight (but relaxed), shoulders back and feet shoulder width apart.
Eye contact: To indicate you are responsive to what is being said, it is important to maintain eye contact with the person you are speaking to. This shows you are listening to the message you are receiving/giving. Look people in the eye (not too intensely please). Don’t eye-roll ever. Even if they just told you Chuck Norris was their personal hero. We know, it’s hard. It is netWORKing people!
Facial expressions: Another way to convey your responsiveness is to maintain appropriate facial expressions. Nod occasionally (note-occasionally-you don’t belong on a dashboard) to demonstrate engagement and don’t smile like the Joker; do so politely and genuinely rather than forced.
Gestures: Using gestures are a helpful way to visually complement conversation. It demonstrates your interest with the discussion by conveying a physical response paired with your words. Try not to wildly gesticulate like you’re conducting the symphony or watching an English Premier League game, use small and deliberate movements.
Speech/Tone: It’s crucial that when you’re conversing with someone use an even tone of voice with a speed and pitch that convey you’re enthusiasm. Nevertheless, remain confident and calm. Try not to let nerves get the better of you or speak too quickly.
Touch/physical space: Maintain appropriate distance between you and your fellow conversationalist so they aren’t worried that the eager business student will unhinge their hungry student jaws and swallow them whole.
Regarding touching. Now, why are you touching them? Unless it’s a handshake it probably isn’t appropriate in 99% of circumstances (unless you have to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre or see Donald Trump and can’t live down not checking whether it’s a toupee). Respect personal space, don’t stand any closer than a ruler’s length away. Don’t use bags as weapons (unless you actually need to). Don’t touch people unless it’s socially acceptable in the networking situation. Just don’t.
Who does what, and when?
As a student looking to make a contact, the onus is on YOU to make take initiative and pursue it. At the end of your exchange, inquire whether you can have their business card/email/phone number to contact them in the future.
In a less common situation, they may ask you for your details, ultimately it’s up to your discretion as to whether you comply and give your email/mobile number/business card (but this is the whole purpose of the event!). However, if they don’t ask for your details- don’t insist on giving out your business card. Read the situation and ascertain when the contact just hasn’t bitten onto the tantalising hook you’ve dangled (despite how amazing the sashimi on the end is). It requires a degree of self-control, intuition and will help you avoid wasting that precious coin and trees should they end up scrunched up in the bin the next morning.
As for the business card, this is a rather contentious piece of personal branding that receives debate from either end; do it/don’t do it/carve your details into a marble tablet and beat yourself to death with it to end the debate possibly. If you don’t currently have a fancy schmancy job with an even fancier company-issued business card, heed our advice: if you think it is appropriate, and relevant to your circumstances to have a business card- by all means have one. If on the other hand you’re primarily driven by either a fascination with the invention of the printing press, or just like seeing your name written on glossy paper in Helvetica a tad too much, STEP AWAY FROM THE VISTAPRINT WEBSITE.
Regardless of how you communicate with this person, if you have their details it’s a good idea to follow up. This would ideally involve a short email, or perhaps even a phone call if you’ve got your big girl/boy pants on and feel that surge of conviction. When contacting them, remind the person who you are, what you discussed with them that is of relevance, and inquire as to a potential future meeting/communication of the sort desired by you. Importantly, try not to ooze out a sole intention for a job interview/career boost or plans to rule the corporate world, but merely grasp the opportunity to further discuss your career and gain professional feedback from this person.
Now young grasshopper, heed our advice and you might just make it out unscathed, with a pocket plump full of business cards to boot!
OTHER HELPFUL LINKS:
Ideas for openers and closers to conversations: How To Start and End Networking Conversations – The Huffington Post
Header image credit: Ben Rea