By Dana Whatley Smith, Manager, Learning & Development, Duquesne University
Does the idea of walking in a room and talking to a group of people about yourself make you cringe? Does sitting across the table from a stranger having coffee make you feel uneasy? Does calling someone you just met make you feel uncomfortable? Don’t worry – you are not alone in how you feel.
Networking, while it is important, is pretty darn scary. In fact, it ranks as the number one most common fear that people have, with fear of spiders coming in at number six. And yes, spiders do make me cringe.
Once you become an adult however, the idea of “stranger danger’ becomes a fallacy. Networking is the new ‘playground’ and it is how we adults build relationships and make connections. Networking really is a fun, enriching, career-enhancing and thought-provoking experience. For those of you that prefer to keep to yourselves: start your engines, as I share with you seven tips to help you get started with networking.
1.Introductions are awesome. When I first started networking, I had a mentor who would introduce me to people. This is called an ‘informational interview.’ Trust me when I say, this is half the battle. Having someone make an introduction for you, is essentially like starting the engine. You don’t have to wonder what to say to make a good impression, because the work has already been done for you. You just need to get the courage to talk about yourself, listen and ask good questions.
2.Go to a networking event. Take a buddy, but then diverge. This is the next step, after you’ve gotten some practice talking to people you’ve been introduced to. Networking events can be fun, and there is nothing wrong with taking a buddy, as long as you diverge from the buddy and meet new people. It’s easy to want to stay in your comfort zone and talk only to the people we know, but try it out…step out of your corner and step into a small group of people. It will get easier the more events you attend.
3.Give a compliment. Start with interesting small talk. Sometimes the best way to start a conversation is with a compliment, as long as it is an honest one. Small talk works too, as long as it is relevant and something that most people will know about. It might feel cliché, but you really can talk about the weather, or about the networking event itself.
4.Plan to talk about yourself. Isn’t this the hardest thing to do? Take the time to really think about what you want to share about yourself. Write it out and practice it, in front of a trusted friend. This is known as an ‘elevator speech.’ You have about thirty seconds to make that first impression, so make sure it’s thirty seconds of time well spent.
5.Meet, move on and meet again. Once you find someone you enjoy talking with, you may want to talk to them all night. But that’s not fair to the other networkers. This is where you gracefully thank them for their conversation, exchange contact information and agree to continue the conversation. And then, move on to the next interesting person to meet.
6.Reach out to your contacts. Perhaps the most important part of the networking experience is actually building the relationship. Networking isn’t over when you leave the event. Not everyone you meet will be a lasting contact, but some will. So either call them, or email them, to say hello from time to time. Meet up for coffee or lunch and continue to expand your network.
7.Pay it forward. Share the joy of networking. Networking takes time and lots of practice. As you start to see the benefits of networking, share your experience with others, who were once like you. Offer to connect them to other contacts. Keep it going, and keep networking.
Let me tell you a secret. I was just like so many of you before I first started networking. I could not figure out why I would torture myself in a roomful of strangers, just to get a few contacts that I would probably never reach out to again. I didn’t understand its benefits, nor was I willing to invest the time to find out. It was only after a mentor shared with me just how beneficial it could be that I decided to make an effort. I am grateful to my mentor for taking the time to coach me, to take baby steps with me and to encourage me to share my experiences with others. Now it’s your turn to give it a try!
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