Networking is not an innate talent. You need to hone and improve the skill over time to truly learn how to network. Unfortunately, that means you have to practice, practice, and then practice a little more—especially if you tend toward the introverted side. Everyone has a tough time making conversation at conferences or work events, so you’re not alone. But with the right attitude, a little help from your friends, and careful selection of opportunities, you’ll be handing out business cards and making important connections with confidence before you know it.
Tap Into Your Alumni Network
When you automatically have that one big thing in common, it’s easier to chat with strangers. You can start by joining alumni groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, or your alma mater’s website. Once you do, you’ll find there are events happening almost constantly. These people (with their great job connections) will already have a good impression of you, so take advantage of the friendly atmosphere. Odds are you’ll run into someone you already know, or at the very least someone who knows someone you know.
Work in Pairs
While you don’t want to spend a whole event in a corner talking with friends, bringing one familiar person with you can go a long way toward removing the awkward. A three-person conversation is less likely to lapse into uncomfortable silence, and you can serve as each other’s networking wingmen (or women!) and talk each other’s accomplishments up. It’s crucial to be perceived as confident, but sometimes it can make you feel arrogant to talk about yourself. But having your friend highlight some of your expertise and accomplishments is an easy way to subversively accomplish this. Another quick tip: Bring business cards. They might seem old school, but this is still the most efficient way to quickly give out your contact information.
Expand Your Social Circle
Networking isn’t just for power lunches—any time you leave the house is an opportunity to meet someone who might have a good job lead for you. So go to those big birthday parties! Be a friend’s plus-one to their office holiday happy hour! Friends of friends can be great resources, and because they know your friend, they’re automatically more trusting of you and more willing to help you out. Go to Meetups with people who are interested in the same things you are. Don’t let the fear of meeting new people stop you from learning how to network! The process at its core is really all about making new friends.
Take It Online and Off
Take advantage of your online connections as well. Check out your LinkedIn network and see who is already working for companies that interest you. Once you find someone, send them a LinkedIn message and invite them out for coffee or see if you can do an informational interview. In addition, don’t forget about professional associations and volunteer activities, which will always have events or chances to meet interesting people.
Pay It Forward
Everyone needs a helping hand once in a while, and if you’re in a position to make a job connection happen for someone else, do it! Establish yourself as someone people can count on, and you’ll find that those people will really want to help you in the future.
Treat networking less like this big scary thing you do while wearing an uncomfortable suit and more like something that happens naturally. If you look at it as a chance to attend social events and meet new people, it won’t feel nearly as overwhelming. Once you get into the groove, you’ll soon build up a strong list of business contacts and, at the very least, make a few new friends.