Meeting people in college is easy. You sit next to them in class, bump into them in the cafeteria, and play flip cup with them at parties. But once you leave the comfort of campus and put on a suit, you suddenly forget how to hold a conversation and a paper plate at the same time. It’s okay—it happens to everyone. There are two things you should know about networking: It’s an important part of expanding your professional contacts, BUT it can also be kind of sucky and awkward sometimes. Just follow these handy guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to networking like a champ.
- Don’t Focus Solely on Business and Forget to Be Social
In the video “#1 Worst Face-to-Face Networking Mistake,” J.T. O’Donnell of careerealism.com, describes the worst networking she’s ever witnessed. Sadly, the man she describes was doing exactly what he’s “supposed to do.” The problem is that he didn’t take into account that networking is something that occurs between people. If it’s centered around people, there needs to be a human element to it.
This man approached networking as though it had a set rulebook that needed to be followed word for word. She describes watching him go from group to group and “interrupting himself into the conversation,” introducing himself, handing out business cards, then standing for a few moments before heading to the next group to do the same thing. There was no back and forth, no reaching out to the people around him. Yes, people are there with a business agenda in mind, but when it comes down to it, people are still people. They still want to have conversations outside of “I am so and so, my business is such and such, I want to be hired.”
Don’t Make BFFs and Forget to Network
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it can also be easy to fall into the trap of making friends rather than networking. Both are similar processes. You have to be careful not to cross the line and lose a potential business associate. Because it can be such a tricky process, Forbes published “The Difference Between Networking and Making Friends,” to help differentiate between the two. Basically, it’s great to meet new people, and you could definitely hit it off with someone, but you have to remember that you are there to network. After a while move on.
At a networking event I attended back home I found myself stuck in this situation. First, a little background: I don’t “mingle” well. Talking with strangers is not my strong point. I was loath to go to the event in the first place, but my father dragged me there in hopes that I would make gains toward someday moving out of the house.
So when this young man came over and struck up a conversation, I was happy to have someone to talk to rather than standing awkwardly alone at a table, scanning the crowd for the least intimidating person there. When he found out I was a Creative Writing major we bonded over our love of Hunter S. Thompson and I shared my favorite short story authors with him. We had a few other things in common and I enjoyed talking about them, but after a while, I was ready to move on. I was not getting any networking done. I was not making any advancements in my career. We had yet to discuss anything business related. I knew that I had to end the conversation and move on.
Don’t Pretend to Be Interested in Something Just to Please the Other Person
I may not have been getting any networking done while talking to that young man, but at least we had been talking about something I was actually familiar with. A coworker of mine made the networking mistake of pretending to know more about a subject than he actually did.
While networking in China, he took advantage of the language barrier to give the impression he had much more interest in basketball than he actually did. He was able to get by with a couple nods and “Yes, I like that player.” or “No, I don’t like him.” He thought he had everything under control.
Then a translator was brought in and everything went south. He discovered that not only did the man he was speaking with like basketball, but was an educated hardcore fan. Questions that required much more in-depth analysis, like “Surely Lebron James’s scoring percentages are a great achievement, but with the addition of Hughes and Marshall this year, will his performance be sustainable?” were being shot in his direction in rapid succession. It only took a couple of questions for it to become abundantly clear that, in fact, he knew nothing about basketball.
Needless to say, there was no great relationship formed.
Don’t Stay at a Networking Event Dud
Sometimes, we only have ourselves to blame for awkward networking experiences. But there are times when it’s not your fault and a networking event is just plain bad. Ereleases.com gives us “5 Signs You’ve Stumbled Into a Bad Networking Event,” a list of some signs that the event you’re at is a bust, and you should run for the hills. You don’t want to waste a night talking with no one, or talking with people who don’t want to work with you, or feeling so awkward that you have to drink five glasses of wine in the first half hour just to get through it.
Don’t Show up Unprepared
These days, we are so used to social networking online that we can forget the basics when it comes to networking offline. Levo League gives us “10 Offline Networking Tips.” Some of them may sound obvious, like “Smile,” but I guarantee that when you’re at a networking event and faced with a crowd of potential business associates, you will need these common sense reminders to help you get through the night.
It’s also good to have some people in mind that you know you want to speak to at the event. This way you can do a little research beforehand. Having some background on a person can help to make those awkward introductions a little less awkward. It gives you something to start a conversation with. For example: “Hi, my name is Annette Warker. I heard that you got your start making balloon animals. I would love to hear more about that.”
Believe me. I have made the mistake of introducing myself to someone at a networking event and then having a long awkward pause when I’m not sure exactly what I wanted to add or take from a conversation with that person. It’s a painful experience and one that can be avoided with a little research!
Now that we’ve terrified you with horror stories and told you what not to do, let’s take a moment to go over some things that will up your networking game and give you an extra confidence boost.
- Do Find a Pal to Eat with
There’s food at the event? Grab a plate and head over to someone you know first. This way, you can eat without fumbling to balance your plate, drink, and utensils while presenting your business card to a stranger like some kind of ninja. Spending the first ten minutes with someone you know can help bolster your confidence. And, who knows? Maybe this acquaintance can introduce you to someone else at the event.
- Do Include Others
If you’re feeling awkward at an event, try being the host(ess) for a bit. Take notice of someone lingering at the edge of your group and introduce him/her to everyone else. Not only will you be making that person feel more comfortable, but the assertive role will help you feel more confident as well!
- Do Know Who You’re Connecting With
Be sure that the networking connection you’re using is actually a connection. Matt Baum, Director of Sales at AfterCollege offers the following advice: “Relying on LinkedIn without doing any real research is the best way to have a networking FAIL. The majority of LinkedIn members have connections they don’t even know and would never trust. I am constantly being contacted by people touting their connection to me through someone I don’t know or respect. To have a meaningful networking experience, you have to talk to people who know other people and get introduced whenever possible.”
- Do Have a Few Tricks up Your Sleeve
Sometimes an event coordinator will use some fun games or questions to ease the unfamiliar into the familiar. Connect: Professional Women’s Network gives examples of successful ice breakers. If you’re ever at an event and it feels like no one is mingling, use some of these to get the ball rolling.
Or, if games aren’t your thing, Levo League suggests three conversation starters that aren’t directly related to business. This way you can break the ice and then ease your way into discussing careers. Some people may really like their jobs, but most likely, they are passionate about something else. Break the awkward tension by discovering these other interests. People will be much more interested in talking with you if you reach out to them on a personal level, rather than slamming your business ventures in their faces right from the start.
- Do Consume an Appropriate Amount of Alcohol
Networking events can be fun. The atmosphere is often very similar to that of a party and most of the time alcohol is served. Go ahead and grab a glass or two, but don’t forget that you’re there on business. Jennifer Rutt, Director of Strategic Partnerships at AfterCollege has never drunk too much at a networking event, but she has seen people who have. “The situation doesn’t end well for them.”
- Do Network with Your Personal Network
A big mistake that networkers (especially recent graduates) often make is not wanting to use family connections. You may be saying to yourself, “I want to make it on my own without my parents’ help!” This is silly. When it comes to job hunting, you don’t want to exclude any resources. Don’t discount third degree connections either. Your uncle’s friend who works in your field is not giving you a handout—he’s much more interested in meeting someone who was personally referred than combing through hundreds of applications online. So thank Uncle Bob for the introduction, talk with his friend, and you just may land a new job sooner than you expected!
Homework time! Choose one or two of the tips from this post and come up with a game plan for your next networking event. Don’t know where to find a networking event? Check with your school’s career services, student groups you belong to, or professional organizations that have student chapters.