How to: grow your network when you hate 'networking'

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If you want to create a network to protect yourself from risk in future (redundancies and restructures happen), are looking to fill skill gaps in your current performance, want to earn more in future, are unhappy in your current role, freelance, work for yourself and need clients, are looking for some inspiration, want to meet people who are going to inspire you, push you to create better work and potentially even mentor you — you gotta get in front of people who can help.

Think not 'what' do you need to know - but who. There's no one who can't help you fill a skill gap to get where you want to in your career.

As author Susan Cain says, ‘don’t think of it as networking. Think of it as seeking out kindred spirits.’ Instead of ‘schmoozing’ or 'networking' think ‘contacting’. Contacting people who might dig, understand / relate to what you do. No sales, no schmoozing, no fakery — just talking to people who have similar stuff in connection with you. 

1:1 COFFEE DATES

If you're like me and you prefer going deep in conversations, creating an opportunity to get face time with a career crush is a great way to get to know people and extend your network. Reach out to someone you admire and ask them for coffee and tell them precisely what you'd like to ask them. Then, ask them at that coffee if there's anyone they can connect you to who would relate to what you're doing, or be able to give you tips on where you want to go.

BE THE CONNECTOR

When you connect two people who are likely to have things in common, you're creating a network outside of your own. I invite a few people to breakfast every week who I think would vibe with each other, have some shared experiences and are likely to be open to meeting others. No more than a handful of people so we can talk deep about interesting stuff.

A tip I learned from Happiness Hacker Penny Locaso: ask what 'win' have they had that week, what's something they're struggling and need help with and what's something they can help others with. You don't need to stick to a script but if you're a bit nervous, it can be fun to say 'I was worried we'd have nothing to talk about so I actually wrote down some questions.' That's when the magic and mentoring comes out. When you're honest and can be open with other people.

FIND AN EVENT 'HANDBAG' TO TAKE TO EVENTS

If meeting and talking to people sucks your energy, you can make it work for you by refining interactions to smaller groups of people. And for this you can take an event 'handbag'. 

A handbag is your reliable, energetic, fun and charismatic BFF. Someone who knows you well who feels comfortable talking to complete strangers. Let the handbag take the lead and your brilliance can shine when you feel like contributing to the conversation. 

The handbag is:

  • professional and puts other people at ease
  • loves to talk to random strangers
  • often works in communications, sales, new business or hospitality
  • not an alcoholic, can handle a drink and doesn’t go crazy over the word ‘free’
Grab your Nikki and ace that networking event.

Grab your Nikki and ace that networking event.

If you’ve not got any immediate friends who fit the bill — you will definitely have them at work. They’re often in the communications / new business / sales department of your workplace. (If you’re in a trade or hospitality, they’re the customer service and front of house people). They’re used to talking and warming up complete strangers.

Ask if they’d like to come to an event you’re going to (FYI - active tense creates action) as there’ll be heaps of contacts there they might benefit meeting. New business, sales and communications people live for contacts (that’s connections to you).

They get free drinks and you get a conversation opener. Win win.

CONNECTING AT AN EVENT WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW ANYONE

Ask for the facilitator / organiser — tell them you don’t know anyone and would like an introduction (it’s their job to do this, it wont be weird).

Approach someone. Anyone. With…

  • ‘I don’t know anyone here — mind if I join you? (They’ll NEVER say no — they’re at a work function, it’s an unspoken rule)
  • ‘I’m new here — what do you do?’
  • What brings you here?’
  • ‘Networking events freak me out. I’m not the only one, right?’

Remember why you’re going in the first place. Hopefully you’ll meet someone who can inspire you, introduce you to a great company, an interesting project. A little bit of awkward is a great investment in your future — you’ll get over it pretty quick.

Remember, walk in with a smile. Almost everyone I meet at an event has a frown on their face. It's because they're nervous, too.

OK. NOW I’M TALKING TO SOMEONE SUPER INTERESTING. WHAT NEXT?

Be sure to grab their details towards the end of the conversation before they’re chatting to someone else. (Asking for someones details at an event like this is absolutely fine — just let them know you’d love to keep in touch and ask for their card, or details.)

After the event — DO follow up. Less than 5% of the people I meet actually follow up and connect with me. Check out their website / Twitter / LinkedIn to learn more about what they do if you’re curious. Then flick them an email, letting them know it was great to chat and to send through your details for their future reference.

If you’d like to meet with them again (and of course you’d like to because they were super interesting) perhaps ask if they’re free over the next few weeks — and suggest a few dates and times. (When people are busy, having options prompts people to commit. Also — meeting within a few weeks of meeting keeps up the momentum you created when you first met).

I’M 20 MINUTES IN AND FEEL EXHAUSTED.

I get it. Two things:

  • Time out — go to the bathroom, sit in the cubicle and chill out for a bit. Five mins isolation — and you’re ready to go again.
  • Pop out for a sec. Go down the lift, head outside and walk to the end of the street. Come back. Fresh air and no one has to know! [I have done both these things. Totally refreshes me].

OK! I SURVIVED — AND WANT TO DO IT AGAIN. HOW DO I FIND ANOTHER EVENT?

  • Industry experts. Follow people in your industry who are at the top of what they do. They might be a head creative, marketing experts, or the head of a brand (in your area of expertise) you think are doing great things. They’re routinely asked to speak at events and part of that is sharing these events with their networks. They’ll post when an event is on they’re speaking at.
  • Idols. People who you think are ace and have absolutely nothing to do with your job. If they’re doing projects that inspire you, it’s likely they’ll be so inspiring that they’re asked to speak at an event and panel, and, like your industry experts, they’ll likely share that on Twitter / Facebook when they’re next presenting.
  • Agencies who work with brands that you really admire. The people behind the scenes are the ones who are often asked to speak at events to share success stories. You can find some really interesting people who have done amazing work at events.
  • Regular scanning — search.twitter.com — with your industry, followed by location (search.twitter.com — enter hashtag industry, followed by near:location — #marketing near:sydney). Do this once a week and see what crops up.
  • Ask LinkedIn: ‘Looking for great #film events in #london — any great suggestions?’
  • Festivals — sign up to their enewsletter — they wont often push ‘networking’ events on their social but may very well share third party (other peoples) events that are related.
  • Venues: follow venues that attract the names / speakers you would like to see. Sign up for their EDM and they’ll do the scanning for you. Hooray!
  • Events as a starting point: if there’s two enewsletters I’d recommend off the bat — these guys are a great starting point: Creative Mornings / The Fetch.

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More reading:

Effective marketing for Introverts (tip: schedule your bravery)

How to follow up after a networking event via Forbes

Networking for people who hate networking

30 conversation openers for networking events (sign in w LinkedIn / email to view)