Networking is hard. Well, I always found it hard. Some people seem to find it comes ever so easily. They just strike up a conversation with whoever they happen to sit next to, it's effortless, and they build this rolodex of people that they have at their fingertips. When I started my career, there was nothing I hated more than talking to other people. Weird for an HR person to admit, but it's true.
Why was this so difficult to me? I had a few hangups:
1. I assumed that any time I spoke to someone about what I do or my businesses, I was bothering them.
2. I had a crippling case of Socially Awkward that was congenital and incurable.
3. I had gotten so good at avoiding conversations, and the creeping progress of technology was making it easier every day.
However, as any good sales person will tell you, the key to making business connections is being good at talking to others, figuring out their problems and telling them how you can solve them. Indeed, that's true not just for your business, but for your career as well. You have to be able to introduce yourself to others - total strangers - and be natural about it.
Now, there may be some friends of mine who are reading this, thinking to themselves, "Wait, I've seen you at parties. I've seen you interact with total strangers. I've seen you sing show-tunes in a TGI Friday's at full volume - you are not a shy person!" And all that is true. But have you ever seen me without the safety blanket of someone I know? I can't exactly tow a wingman around when I'm trying to win business or ace an interview. I always had training wheels on, and they had to come off.
This reality came crashing down when I launched Level Up Prep. I had spent a lot of time recruiting. I had a lot of knowledge to share. I should be super confident, but I had to convince someone I didn't know of this fact. So I went to a job fair armed with a stack of pamphlets and business cards and went to a local job fair to start talking to people. I told myself I wasn't allowed to leave until I had given away all my materials.
Here's my biggest tip for networking: Start with a question that the other person would absolutely love to answer. I didn't want to talk about myself. And in fact, no one else wants to talk about me, either. People do, however, feel good talking about themselves. In the case of a person at a job fair, I started with, "How is your job search going?"
Well, it worked. I got a lot of stories. I got plenty of conversations, complaints, thoughts, fears, and, most importantly for a salesperson, a lot of people telling me about problems they needed solved. I met my goal - I gave away all my materials, and I made a lot of good leads in the process, too.
What if you're not looking to sell? Networking is just as important when you don't have a particular goal in mind. You never know who you're going to meet when you just say hello. If you're at an event, there are plenty of other people there with whom you have something in common. At a good time, just lean over and ask how they're enjoying it. Now you have an opportunity to chat with someone new. I do this all the time now, and I've gotten to network with lots of great people across lots of industries.
Here's a big caveat to networking - in order to be a good citizen, you have to give as much as you expect to get. When you network, offer your skills to others. When I meet a fellow entrepreneur, it's an opportunity to barter complementary talents for each other, or make introductions to others. We all get ahead when we can open doors for others, and when the time comes when you need a door opened, you don't just have to beg for favors, you can actually turn to your friends.
This is my challenge for you this week: Go out and network with someone new. Use my trick, or invent your own. Whatever it takes to start the conversation, then tell me how it went!