Few words inspire as much stank face as “networking.” Everyone says you’re supposed to do it, but most of us dread it, and most of us have no clue how to do it effectively.
My early networking experiences? They sucked.
I remember a short term job I had right out of college in which my boss would send me on “Young Professionals” lunch meetings where I’d have to dig a blazer out of the back of my closet, drive across town to some sad hotel ballroom, and politely push food around my plate while listening to an older, “wiser” professional explain topics that us young’uns were supposed to be fascinated by. We’d then have to go around the table and talk about our respective jobs and half-heartedly toss a few company-branded business cards on the table.
I remember thinking, “what, exactly, is the point of all this?"
"I know it has something to do with business, but I feel like it’s some secret initiation into how be a good little corporate drone, saying the right things, and having the firmest handshake. This is soooo not my scene.”
Fast forward to a few years later when I was freelancing while in the very beginning stages of building my business. I found myself in a position where I actually needed to network, but I knew nothing about it, save getting out of those lunches as quickly as possible. Ooops.
I finally had something I cared enough about to do the things to do the uncomfortable things I needed to do, like networking, but I still dreaded the networking process. I knew that if I was going to keep getting the jobs I wanted and build the business I felt passionate about, I was going to have to make connections and tell others about what I did. But how?
“Did I miss this class in college or something?” I thought. I’d look around the cocktail meetups and think, “How do I crack the code on this? Do all these people know something I don’t? Am I just not cut out for this???”
Here’s what I've learned about making networking a more enjoyable and effective experience.
It’s not an introvert vs. extrovert thing. It’s an authenticity thing.
Think about it. If you asked ten people why they hate networking, at least nine of them would respond with some version of “It feels fake. Icky. Slimy. Sleezy. Weird.”
It’s like everyone has an agenda, and you end up answering the same small talk questions over and over again and being the audience to someone else’s ego. Or dodging someone trying to sell you on something. It’s basically the speed dating of work situations, and it just feels gross.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you hold authenticity as one of your highest values. If you’re a deep diver—not a surface skimmer—of course you hate the way our culture currently approaches networking. It’s fake AF, and fake AF is likely not in your nature.
So what do you do if you need to network, but you’re allergic to fakery?
It’s simple. Rather than attempting to fit yourself in the old school corporate-style networking box of fakery and nonsense, let’s find a find a way to network that fits you and your work needs.
Here are my favorite 10 ways to make networking suck less.
1. Go to networking events that aren’t actually about networking.
If you really, truly hate networking, maybe traditional networking events just aren't for you. This is so okay. Instead of going to events or joining groups specifically dedicated to the amorphous concept of networking, seek out events and organizations that you feel deeply aligned with, and bring "networking" with you. What do you want to be known for? What are you passionate about? What types of people do you want to connect with?
What this looks like: My friend Hayley recently went to a meetup event about conscious capitalism, if for no other reason than she's interested in the concept of conscious capitalism and wanted to learn more. Lo and behold, she found other like-minded people and ended up forming connections almost accidentally, simply because she was following her desires and interests rather than trying to fit in the networking box, which brings us to our next tip:
2. Find your people.
Figure out who your people are and where your tribe hangs out. This may take several tries. For networking to get the results you want (opportunities and connections), it needs to come from an authentic place, and that's tough when you're hanging out with the wrong people. For example, if you are just starting out and building your coaching business, who are the people you want to work with? How can you frequent events or organizations where they hang out? Or maybe you're interested in working in the nonprofit world. What types of lectures, activities, or meetups might a nonprofit professional enjoy? How can you put yourself in a position to connect with them?
What this looks like: One of my clients is currently job hunting in the nonprofit sector, so I had her do a little internet stalking. "I want you to find 3 real human beings on the internet who have exactly the job you want," I told her. "Now check out their social media. What types of events are they going to?" She was able to find an entirely new collective of women in the nonprofit world and attend several of their workshops, sharing her story along the way. By the end of the last event, she had a job offer in hand.
In addition to being fun and helpful to the community, volunteering is a great way to get to know people in a low-stakes environment. At traditional networking events, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to say the right thing, behave a certain way, and pimp some kind of product, service, or opportunity. If the idea of selling yourself makes you gag, don't go to sell. Go to serve.
What this looks like: Get a crystal clear vision of what you want to do with your work, whether it's finding a meaningful job or launching your own meaningful venture, and then find organizations doing something similar. Check out volunteer opportunities on their website or even send them an email introducing yourself and letting them know you're interested in supporting their mission. As you serve, use it as an opportunity to learn and build relationships. Ask questions and let your fellow volunteers know you're looking for jobs or clients.
4. Have a goal in mind.
On the odd occasion I did get my ass to a networking event back in the day, I just sort of wandered around trying not to look awkward or let on that I was clueless. Inevitably, the time would pass, and as I drove home, I'd wonder, "Why did I even go to that? Was that a good use of my time? Did I get anything out of the experience, or did I just go to *feel* like I was doing something?" If you are going to invest the time and energy into networking, make it count. Go with a goal in mind and don't leave until you're reached it.
What this looks like: "I'm going to pick one networking event per month that I feel is a great fit for building my business because tons of my ideal clients hang out there. I'm going to set a goal of having at least 5 really good conversations with people who might be good clients. I'm not going to get attached to the outcome, but I'm going to commit to having those 5 good conversations."
5. See each conversation as an exchange of energy.
We're constantly exchanging energy with one another in the form of time, money, goods, emotional support, and even conversation. You share something with the world and the world shares something back with you. You perform your duties for a boss or a client, and they return your labor energy in the form of money energy. Instead of thinking of networking as needing to impress everyone, think of it as an opportunity to exchange energy with someone you vibe with. Have an ask and an offer.
What this looks like: Having an ask and an offer looks like understanding what you bring to the table and also understanding what you might be seeking from someone else. For example, let's pretend you are a graphic designer who wants to work at a for-purpose start-up, so you attend a workshop for start-up leaders in the hope of meeting some potential employers you vibe with. When you have an ask and an offer, you are crystal clear on what you're asking (who here is hiring graphic designers?) and what you have to offer them (kickass design skills and a great work ethic). In this case, you're just authentically putting your ask and offer out there to see who matches and who wants to exchange.
6. Use networking conversations as a test balloon for deeper relationships.
If you're anything like me, you're allergic to surface. Sometimes I think I am literally allergic to small talk, like if I'm forced to talk about things other than the meaning of life, I'm going to break out in hives. If authentic, meaningful connection is what you really want from your community, consider using casual networking conversations as test balloons for these deeper relationships. Throw out something a little more real, and see if anyone bites. They may not, but then you'll know they're not your right people.
What this looks like: "Oh you just vacationed in Vietnam? That's awesome! I went there when I was in the Peace Corps, and the strides they were making on poverty were really inspiring. I'm actually a first generation American, so I'm really interested in the way Americans can affect global poverty rates. What were your experiences like there?"
7. Embrace quality over quantity.
You do not have to attend every single networking event available in your field or go on every coffee date you're invited to in order to feel like you're "doing it right." It's actually much more effective—not to mention simpler—to pick a few key organizations to get really involved with rather than making quick hit visits to anything that pops up on your Facebook page. Likewise, you don't need to exchange business cards with every single person at a large scale event. Instead of having quick, surface conversations with 20 people, consider speaking with only 5 people, but having conversations they'll remember.
What this looks like: Saying no to distractions and avoiding doing all the things, all at once. Getting crystal clear on what kinds of events, organizations, and people you need to invest in to reach your goals, and then really, really investing in them.
8. Have powerful conversations.
If you're only having boring, surface-y, slimy conversations with people you don't vibe with, why are you even at the networking event in the first place? After you've found your people, named your goal, and focused on quality over quantity, make the conversations themselves count. Most people are natural conversationalists once they get going, but I don't know a single person who isn't a little awkward starting out. Let's say you notice someone in line next to you at a conference, and you think, "I should totally strike up a conversation here, but what in the world do I say?" Try the open-ended question cycle.
What this sounds like:
- First, notice something about the person, like "Hey, were you on that last panel about inspiring social justice in the classroom?"
- Next, introduce yourself and ask open-ended questions, like, "I'm Brittany. So nice to meet you. What initially sparked your interest in social justice?" Open-ended questions are basically questions that you can't answer with a simple "yes" or "no," so they encourage conversation.
- Next, look for points of connection and "me too" moments. Use them as an opportunity to share your story. "Oh wow! That's so cool that you started a nonprofit for teachers who want to talk about social justice in their classrooms. I'm actually in the process of starting my own purposeful business right now, and I want social justice to be a huge part of how we measure our success."
- Then, repeat the process with more open-ended questions. "What do you think has made you successful in your nonprofit work?"
- If the conversation is going well and you guys are vibing, end it with a call to action, like, "I am really impressed with the way you talk about your mission. Would you be willing to get coffee some time? I'd love to talk about ways we could collaborate.”
9. Follow up on the deepest connections.
You may not want to hang out with literally every person you meet while networking, but don't treat a new connection like a one-night stand and then wonder why they aren't popping the question! (no shade to one-night stands) Follow up. Whether that's an email, a follow on Instagram, an invitation to a coffee date, or even sending them your resume or business profile, do something small to keep the connection going. It doesn't have to be long, or perfect, or even impressive as long as it builds the relationship further.
What this looks like: "I'm hopping in your inbox today to tell you how much I enjoyed our conversation at the X event the other night. I've got a workshop coming up soon that I think would be perfect for your team. I'll look forward to sending you details as soon I as have them next week. Can't wait to connect again!"
10. Take it online.
The most important piece of networking advice I can give you is this: do it in way that feels authentic and aligned to you. Yes, because it’s important to trust you truth and listen to the voice of your inner wise woman, but also because you’re not going to do something consistently when you hate it. If networking events themselves make you cringe, take your networking efforts online and hone your skills there first.
What this looks like: “I know need to be putting myself out there so my blog can grow, but I’m not clear on what my blog even is yet! Instead of going to a networking event that’s going to seriously test my confidence, I’m going to introduce myself and practice telling my story and having conversations online first. I’m going to find 3 Facebook groups where my blog audience might hang out, and I’m going to practice connecting with them there until I feel comfortable.”
If “networking” leaves a bad taste in your mouth, consider this your permission to develop your career rolodex the more aligned way: by building authentic relationships with people, organizations, and causes you deeply care about.
When you approach networking from an information-gathering, heart-connecting, story-sharing place, it becomes way easier and way more fun.