Networking is something that makes a lot of people cringe—and understandably so. When people think of the word “networking,” images of forced and insincere flattery comes to mind.
But that’s more often the case when networking is an event—a ritual you perform every once in awhile. Practiced as part of a routine, it can be a lot more livable—just another way of building meaningful relationships. The best time to network is not when you need something, but when you don’t actually have a specific ask in mind. Here’s why, and how to get better at networking when there’s no obvious need you’re trying to fulfill.
Why You Need To Network When It Feels Pointless
Many will immediately recoil at the idea of networking outside the confines of specific events, purpose-built for the occasion, and when there’s a clearly defined need they’re trying to fulfill. After all, networking usually requires pursuing people individually, even if it’s on a casual basis and possibly getting rejected or ignored over and over again.
But there is a reason why many people don’t respond to those inquiries. If in-demand executives or investors said yes to every drinks invite they receive, their blood alcohol content would be high enough to count as its own kind of spirit. Not to mention, the idea of picking someone’s brain isn’t always comfortable or appealing, particularly if alcohol is involved.
So what should networking look like outside of, “Let me buy you a drink”—or even just a coffee? It shouldn’t look like anything in particular. Networking should be a habit, not an event that you put together at the last minute because your company finds its coffers empty or your career needs a reboot.
Being on the lookout for new contacts who might be instrumental to your business shouldn’t just happen at TechCrunch Disrupt or SXSW, it’s something entrepreneurs and professionals should do regularly. This way, you’ll train your brain to be more aware of any and all networking opportunities, and landing valuable connections will become a more intuitive practice that you don’t need to work so hard at.
Making Connections Without Making Asks
Fortunately, there are plenty of simple ways to network every day, when you aren’t looking for anything specific. Start with your inbox, your Twitter DMs, and LinkedIn. While most people are too busy to meet with someone they don’t know, they will often have time to read and respond to an email, provided that it’s executed properly.
Each of these dispatches will look different case by case but should follow the same criteria:
- Ask only one question
- Take no more than 10 minutes to write
- Clock in at no more than 100 words
The text of your networking emails should be uncomplicated, takes no more than two minutes to read, and a maximum of 20 minutes to reply to in around 200 words.
Say an e-commerce platform just launched a premium subscription option and you can’t help but notice the exceptional UX in the new interface. You can email the CDO, congratulating them on the new feature, ask what job boards and recruiting methods they’re using for UX work, and tell them that you’re always looking for the best designers. Or if you’re a designer yourself and might want to consider a new gig later down the road, mention a project you recently worked on and link to an example.
If you find out that an adjunct from your undergraduate days was recently made a tenure-track professor in a field related to your business, email them and recall their specific knowledge from class periods as a segue to ask for reading recommendations.
An up-and-coming startup hires a new CMO away from their job as a business school professor. Email the CEO to commend the new hire and ask if they think there’ll be a trend toward academics coming to tech as tenure-track positions dry up.
These messages don’t have to lead to drinks or formal meetings—they aren’t intended to. But they do forge new relationships based on authentic interest in other people’s businesses and careers—rather than just what they can offer you. When the need does arise, you’ll have already left a lasting impression about your interest in their expertise.
This method of communicating is more effective than drinks, more polite than direct asks when you don’t have an existing relationship, and most importantly, a great way to just learn something new. Remember, there is no need to put some poor executive through yet another brain-picking exercise. It’s awkward and unnecessary—for both of you.
Emmanuel Nataf is the founder of Reedsy, a publishing startup that connects authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers to create high-quality books.