Long before you enter the workforce, you’re told over and over again that you need to network. And for many years afterward, you’re given loads of advice on how to schmooze tactfully, talk yourself up, meet VIPs, make introductions, and even make your way to the door when the time comes. But there’s surprisingly little advice for people who may have cause to worry that they don’t have anything to talk about.
For new grads, people changing industries, and anyone who’s either unemployed or rejoining the workforce after taking time away, networking events can be uniquely stressful. If you don’t have much (or any) recent, relevant job experience, what can you possibly discuss while rubbing elbows with those who can (hopefully) give you the career boost you need? You worry that everybody you meet will quickly notice you’re a waste of their time, smile politely, and move along.
That can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there are a few simple, idiot-proof techniques that can help you sail through even the most nerve-racking networking experience, no matter what may or may not be on your resume.
It’s a bit like dating. For one thing, your past relationship history isn’t going to decide how this interaction goes–only what you do in the moment will. For another, a lot of that depends on how much effort you make to get the know the other person, not on how much or how well you talk about yourself. Like a first date, the real purpose of networking is to find out if there’s compatibility. If there isn’t, you haven’t wasted a lot of time and both of you can go forward for someone more suitable.
So rather than recapping your own resume, be prepared instead to ask other people about themselves. Draw up a quick list of qualities you want to find out about everyone you meet: What would make somebody your ideal connection, or at least a suitable one? Not everyone will be a good match, and you can’t take it personally. Keep asking questions and putting yourself out there. The more you do it, the easier it will become and the better questions you’ll ask.
What makes a good question? Basically, one that leads to a thoughtful answer, not a “yes” or a “no” or “I’ve been at my company for three years.” You want to elicit opinions and ideas, not data.
Keep in mind that everyone has a need to be heard and understood. The problem is that most people listen only to respond–we’re all subconsciously looking for a chance to simply share what we want to say. So you need to consciously resist that urge in yourself and indulge it in others. Listen completely without even thinking of your own response. Repeat back what you heard the person say, in your own words, and ask questions that encourage them to go deeper into the subject.
Everyone you meet at a networking event will be expecting a pitch from you, in some form or another. When they realize that isn’t going to happen and you’re actually listening to them, they’ll be more likely to open up and give you information that they otherwise wouldn’t if they were constantly on guard for your pitch.
It doesn’t matter what your work experience is–you can always lend a hand in some small way. Just like in any reciprocal relationship, work-related or otherwise, it’s always better to offer something before asking for something. When it comes to building professional contacts, it’s definitely better to give than to receive, at least in the beginning. So before going to a networking event, think about what you have to offer–no matter what your resume says–and continue to focus on that when you’re speaking to people.
Networking often feels like a patient buildup, an exercise in social niceties all leading up to a fateful exchange of contact info. It isn’t. In the first encounter, don’t stress yourself out by looking for openings to pitch yourself or your product, or wring a commitment from somebody to meet up for coffee later. Stay in the moment.
By working simply on making a strong connection right now–as an end in itself–your chances of succeeding later on will increase. What you’re doing is laying the foundation for a relationship, not trying achieve some kind of immediate, concrete goal.
Feeling pressured to be perfect to impress the other person so they’ll want to work with you? Of course you are–but the other party may feel the same way, and it can stifle your conversation. Own up to that anxiety, and things should get a lot easier. You don’t have to let loose and share all of your insecurities and fears.
But by showing that you have some doubts and are thinking abut ways to improve professionally, you lower the pressure level for everyone. It makes it easier for the other person to get a bit more vulnerable themselves. It’s on this level where authentic connections really occur.
That’s the whole point of networking anyway, and it has nothing to do with how impressive your experience is–or isn’t.