One of the questions I get more frequently is how to network. In some ways, I find this hilarious because networking and meeting people and (ugh) talking to strangers is one of the hardest things for me to do. Ever. I mean, I get uncomfortable ordering at restaurants. I have to give myself serious pep talks and come up with a handful of “exit strategies” before going into a meeting or going into an event where there will be #networking involved. What’s interesting is that most people don’t know this… I definitely abide by the “fake it ’til you make it” method when talking to and meeting new people.
One of the best things I learned while a student at Georgetown was the importance of establishing great (and authentic) connections with people. My entrepreneurship class in particular pushed me outside (majorly) of my comfort zone. We gave speeches in class, had small group dinners with incredible entrepreneurs, and conducted three one-on-one interviews with entrepreneurs for a semester long project. The more I did it, the more I learned how to be successful at it.
I still get queasy even thinking about it, but these strategies really help me…
1. It’s not networking (it’s connecting). Yes, this post is titled “How to Network” and yes, the first tip is to drop the whole networking thing. Networking is stale and will lead you down the wrong path. Forget about collecting as many business cards as possible and instead focus on making connections. Even if its in a professional context, these relationships should be pretty close to a friendship! (I think friendships come in all shapes and sizes!)
2. Be yourself. If you’re loud and funny, be loud and funny. If you’re shy and awkward, it’s okay to be awkward and quieter. Knowing that you can be yourself and not have to worry about acting in a way you think you should act will instantly calm you down. A bit, at least. Don’t worry about what you think you should do… Just relax and know it’s okay to be yourself. In fact, it’s WAY better to be yourself. Always. When you’re yourself, you’ll make a genuine connection.
3. Ask questions (and listen). Human truth: people like talking about themselves. Want to get a conversation going? Ask a question. Or two. Keep asking questions. You’ll learn so much about the other person. Plus, there is no better way to show interest by asking smart questions. Oh, and to ask smart questions… you have to listen. Followup questions should never be something that the person already said. Yikes.
4. Prepare a few safe topics ahead of time. This is my BEST trick. I use it all the time for absolutely anything. I actually start every morning while I’m in line for Starbucks with this exercise. While in line, I come up with three things that I could talk to about with someone if I find myself in a situation where I feel uncomfortable. Some examples: New restaurants you want to try or just visited, an exhibit that opened up in the city, a new life event (like your new job or a new project), something in the news (but avoid religious and political topics)… etc. I always back-pocket three topics so I know I’ll always have something to talk about. No matter what.
5. Reach out to anyone (and everyone). Want to pick someone’s brain? Ask her to coffee. Just dying to know how she does it all? Ask. See someone at an event that you’ve always looked up to? Introduce yourself. It takes work and effort… but it’s worth it. Don’t wait for someone to come up to you or to reach out to you. Go for it.
6. And my last bonus tip… It’s okay if you don’t “click” with someone. I generally meet with eight to ten different people throughout a normal week. Half of the time, I’m meeting complete strangers. Almost always we hit it off or get through the meeting with amazing end results. BUT, from time to time, we don’t click. I used to get really annoyed with myself… thinking that I did absolutely everything wrong. But you know what? Sometimes the synergy is just not there and that is okay. Focus on the connections that work instead of beating yourself up over the connections that don’t.
Do you have any tips for making connections with people?