A Tirzah Girl's Guide to Networking
According to the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, I am an INTJ—an introvert through and through. So, for years at networking events, I simply wouldn't talk. I would smile, nod, and answer if spoken to directly, but I definitely would not initiate a discussion with a stranger.
One time in college, though, I attended a networking event, and by the end, I had talked with over half of the people in attendance, picked up a handful of business cards, and even made a friend or two. The reality didn't sink in until after the event—I had nailed the networking event, and to my astonishment, even enjoyed it.
Whether you're in college or in the working world, you've probably attended at least one networking event (if you haven't, trust me, it's just a matter of time). For most young women, just the word networking is enough to make you want to crawl under a blanket and binge on Netflix. I get it, I do.
So, despite the fact that this post is all about networking, for the sake of making the topic more approachable, let's just think of it as meeting new people. It's not about how many business cards you collect, or how many people you impress. It's about connecting with people and showing them that, even if it's for a few minutes in a crowded room, they matter.
Go in With Confidence
At some point, I recognized that I have something valuable to offer in a discussion, even with a stranger. Not to brag, but I'm fascinating. And you know what? So are you. Sometimes, though, it takes some soul searching to put this into perspective. So ask yourself these questions. What am I good at? What do I love to talk about? What do my friends ask my advice about? Where have I succeeded in the past? Likely, you’ll find a common thread in your answers, pointing to where your strengths originate.
For me, it’s learning. I love sharing what I’m currently learning in my job or in my classes (or under appropriate circumstances, I love talking about what God is teaching me through my daily Bible study). So now, before I go into a networking event, I remind myself of that. I also remind myself that I am probably the only person in the room who can offer insight on what is going on in my life—hence, giving myself permission to speak about my accomplishments.
We women struggle with this though. As Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her TED talk, women tend to attribute their success to luck or to other people while men are quick to take credit for their work and to take greater pride in their accomplishments. We just don't like to talk about ourselves. Don't get me wrong, that can be a good trait if it's rooted in humility (not insecurity!), but there are times when we need to speak up for ourselves and our accomplishments.
Note though, that there is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. Networking is not just about you; it’s also about the person you’re speaking to. Focus the conversation on them, but remember that they’re trying to focus the conversation on you in return. It’s a delicate balance.
Oh, and ladies, I totally understand the power of wearing a good outfit and how it can boost your confidence. But, pretty please dress conservatively and modestly - attract people with what you say, not with your clothes, cleavage, or sky high heels (House of Marbury has some great advice on dressing professionally and stylishly!).
Prepare Conversation Starters
My mind used to go blank when I entered a networking event. I was intimidated and, therefore, couldn't think of one coherent thing to say. Now, before I go into a networking event, I'll run through a few of my favorite conversation starters, like “Where do you work?” “What do you like most about your job?” “Any advice for someone entering your industry?” People love to give advice and talk about themselves, so asking anything about the other person’s interests, career, or expertise will definitely spark a conversation.
If you can, research the attendees ahead of time by looking at the guest list or checking Twitter to see who’s tweeting in advance of the event. Find out who they are, where they work, and what the overall dynamic is going to be at the event so that your conversation starters are customized to the group of people you’ll be spending the next few hours with.
When all else fails, ask someone what fires them up. It might take some coaxing, but once you touch on that sweet spot, just watch a person's eyes light up as they become animated and start to talk a mile a minute. It might be gardening, their children, a new project at work, or traveling, but everyone has something. Yes, sometimes you might be bored to tears, but be kind and listen. Ask questions. Smile. Make that person feel like they're the only one in the room. As the saying goes, people will forget a lot about you, but they'll never forget how you made them feel. So make someone feel like they're VIP.
It's cheesy, but when I enter a networking event, I imagine myself as a social butterfly—fluttering from person to person, from group to group, charming and carefree as can be. I have a theory that, like smiling, which actually makes you feel happier, imagining yourself as outgoing will make you more outgoing. Capture this image right before you enter a room and keep bringing it up when you need a boost through out the event. Ideally though, you’ll get so caught up in playing out your more outgoing alter ego that you’ll eventually become her, making networking fly by in a dizzying color of new faces and snippets of pleasant conversation.
If you're over 21 and you drink alcohol, please monitor your alcohol consumption at networking events. I have seen so many young people drink too much at events, and then they end up leaving a very poor impression on their co-workers, potential contacts, employers, and maybe even end up with some embarrassing photos posted on Facebook. So, don't be that girl (you can learn more about her and how not to act in our 5-day devotional on the Proverbs 7 woman!).
Follow Up & Stay in Touch
As you meet new people, do your best to remember names and important facts about each person. Some people have a natural gift for this, but if you don't, find a system that works for you. For example, associate either a physical or personality trait with the person's name. Make up a song in your head that will get you repeating a name in your head. Sneak away a couple times into the bathroom to jot down on your phone names and important facts.
One piece of advice I've heard over and over from successful people is how vital it is to keep up with your relationships - both new and established ones. Ask people about their new child when you see them at an event or ask about their recent vacation (thanks to social media, these things can be easy to google quickly!). Send a congratulations card when you see that someone got a promotion or got engaged (handwritten cards are gold, y'all!). Add them on LinkedIn with a personalized message of who you are and where you met. If you see an article that you think someone will enjoy, email it to them. Ask someone to coffee or lunch.
All of these things apply both in your personal and professional life. People just want to know that they matter, and these little details - remembering birthdays, sending random encouragement, or keeping up with someone's milestones - speaks volumes about your character. Caring about others' successes and accomplishments builds up an amazing reputation for you.
Networking can be intimidating for a lot of people - it certainly terrified me for years, but with some preparation, practice, and an adjustment in mindset, networking can be (dare I say?) fun. Now, go forth and build your network!