By Amy Spelman

Networking – it can make even the most extroverted person feel uncomfortable. Why has such a fundamental component of business become cringe-worthy?

Because many people treat networking as a transactional process in which they need to “sell” something: their services, product, brand, job qualifications. 

Yes, new relationships will often open doors to new jobs, clients, or sales. But if you’re only out to help yourself, others will quickly pick up on that, and your efforts will backfire.

Instead, approach networking in a thoughtful and considered way – as the relationship-building opportunity it is.

What does this look like?

It depends on the context. Are you meeting a mutual connection for coffee? Setting up an informational interview with your dream company? Or attending a formal event with 20+ participants?

I’ll start with the latter, since large-scale events tend to feel the least natural for people.

Strategies for mastering big networking events

Find a common thread

If you’re looking for a group event to attend, tap into networks where you already have something in common. For example, connect with your college alumni group or people who used to work at the same firm. Having something in common makes it easy to find things to talk about and there's usually a baseline of goodwill. E.g., people will usually help out someone who went to their school.

Think quality over quantity

Just because you’re attending an event with dozens of people, doesn’t mean you have to talk to every single person. In fact, you shouldn’t. Instead, aim to connect with just a few individuals (think 1-3), and to get past surface-level conversations with them. 

Instead of asking “Where do you work?” seek to learn about interests, challenges, or hobbies outside of work. Try to make the conversation feel natural, as if you were talking with a friend.

In my experience, this makes events more enjoyable and less overwhelming. It will also be easier to follow up with your new connections in a meaningful way. 

Approach groups of odd numbers

If you see three people standing together, one person is likely feeling a little left out of the conversation and will be glad you approached. People I work with on career transitions say this makes it easier to join the conversation, and makes them less likely to feel as though they’re interrupting.

The above strategies are particularly useful for large group networking events. But think outside the box – there are many ways to make professional connections.

If you’re more comfortable in smaller, more intimate settings – and many of us are – consider setting up 1:1 coffee chats or lunches. You can even schedule phone or video calls if an in-person meeting isn’t feasible; however, meeting face-to-face is ideal for establishing a rapport and making a memorable impression.

Try the following strategies to enhance networking – in any setting.

Do your homework

Prepare for higher-stakes conversations ahead of time. For example, if you land an informational interview with a senior leader at your dream company, come prepared with substantive things to say about why you admire the organization. Something like, “Your company is so cool!” is less likely to impress than “One of the things I admire about your company is your transparency with customers; you’re the only brand that reveals how much it actually costs to make your clothing. You’ve earned customers’ trust and loyalty.” The latter shows genuine interest and preparedness and will leave a favorable impression.

Show, don’t tell

Go beyond telling someone about your expertise – actually find ways to help. Not only will your efforts be appreciated, but helping is a proven way to build connections. For example, if you’re a skilled designer, offer to peek at someone’s website before they launch. You’re not going to spend hours redesigning their site – they’re not a client – but share some easy-to-implement suggestions. You’re both demonstrating your expertise and being a value-add: a win-win. 

Pro tip: don’t offer someone help for the sole purpose of getting their help in return. That mindset – called being a “matcher” – comes across as self-interested and is therefore counterproductive.

Listen well

In work and in life, there are few skills as powerful or as underrated as listening well. And this is especially true when building new relationships. How do you show someone you’re listening? Eye contact and body language help, but they don’t guarantee it. Instead, rephrase what you’ve heard. 

In conversations with new connections – a mutual friend, prospective client, or hiring manager - regularly paraphrase what you’ve just heard. Think of it as a brief summary of what you’ve picked up, not a direct repetition or question. This shows people that you’re listening and gives them permission to continue speaking - without influencing what they say.

A rephrase can begin in a number of ways – “It sounds like…” “So…” “If I heard you right…” “What you’re saying is…” It’s a surefire way to impress and help people warm up to you. What’s more: it forces you to pay attention well enough to learn from the conversation and send a thoughtful follow-up. This leads me to…

Maintain the relationship

Regardless of the networking context – event or 1:1 – always follow-up with new connections after the fact. If not, you’ve wasted your time (and theirs) and lost the opportunity to build a meaningful connection.

Send a follow-up note or a personalized LinkedIn request, ideally within 24 hours of meeting, thanking the person for his/her time, and referencing a memorable aspect of the conversation. Sending an email or LinkedIn message is perfectly acceptable. However, if someone went above and beyond for you – landing you a meeting that led to your dream job, for example – consider a handwritten letter.

When approached the right way, networking doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or dreaded; rather, it’s an opportunity to build relationships, learn something new, and maybe find some enjoyment along the way.

I’m hungry to learn more - what else can I do?

If networking is critical to your livelihood - e.g., you’re growing a business or trying to land your dream job - you might consider additional resources. I work with individuals on career transitions and we work with teams on sales and the like. Talk to us to learn more.

Amy Spelman specializes in helping people navigate and master their career transitions. As Senior Advisor to Pencil or Ink, Amy also has a wealth of communications and branding experience to her name. You can reach her here.