In certain circles, the words “networking” or “networker” have a slighty negative connotation to them – adding themselves to the ranks of car salesman or ticket scalper. The word “schmooze” sounds greasy on purpose, but networking has an important role in everyone’s life.
I’ve received several nominations recently for the Schmooze Award (thanks, everyone!), and I’m sure, since I talk about food and travel, that most of them aren’t even aware of how important networking actually is to me. Ever since I understood it as a concept years ago, it’s driven me every day to meet new people and seek new information, ideas and inspiration.
Networking is for everyone – whether you’re a painter, a student, a businessman or a mother. And it’s really easy to do.
Here’s some information on what networking is, why you should do it, and how!
What is Networking
The exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically : the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business (from Merriam-Webster)
Networking is fundamentally about exchanging information, whether it be about personal, business, services, products, or job opportunities. You will have only a few relationships in your life where you are exchanging purely emotion. We exchange information because it is a form of validation, a synthetic way to demonstrate what we have learned through experience and schooling.
I believe there are several factors that motivate two people to network. Note that “something” here could be a product, service, information, contact, job, etc.
- I want something from you
- I want you to want something from me
- I know a little about you, but I am curious to know more
- I don’t know who you are, but I think you should know who I am
- I don’t know who you are, but I may need to know later
Every networking experience for me is a different combination of these motivators, but in general I do not network because I need something now. I network because I realize life is constantly evolving and changing, and I don’t know what situations I will encounter and when. I prefer not to judge someone by what we appear to have in common or how useful they can be to me today.
Instead, when meeting a new person, I try to understand who they are – if they are:
- Curious and seeking knowledge and ideas – A great source of inspiration and information, and they may be the first ones to tell you about a new idea or resource
- An expert in something – A great resource because they have in-depth knowledge of the subject at their tongue-tip!
- Well-connected with other people and groups – Maybe this person doesn’t have any direct answers for you, but they probably know someone who does
- Generous with their time, information and/or contacts – The next step in being a resource is sharing with others.
- Willing to help – Interested in helping your cause, teaching you something, or investigating something and getting back to you – generous contacts to have
I consider myself to be a “Connector” (from The Tipping Point) and most Connectors are not so by accident – they put themselves in a position of being an available resource, to collect, process, and sort people, information, and ideas so they can recall them later when the opportunity arises.
How many times have you heard: “It’s not what you know…It’s who” ?
This saying has no metaphorical implications like “A stitch in time saves nine,” but it has become the most important “proverb” of modern times. As it gets easier to meet people due to virtual interaction and increasing travel, “who you know” is no longer a factor of proximity. Many job listings you see online have been filled by the time they become public. Many companies never even open up opportunities to the general public, but utilize (and reward!) their network of employees and friends to fill them as much as possible.
Information is time-sensitive.
Something you learn today, a person you meet today, may not become relevant immediately to your world. It may not ever become relevant to your particular world but instead become an important resource for one of your other contacts. You can rely on a good network of people to help keep you informed, and you should do your part to inform others of important/interesting information.
Information is free.
Most information is free. It is the act of sharing that information that costs us time, exclusivity, trust. Most of these “costs” are worth the return, however. At the rate our information world is changing, you have the opportunity to discover something new whenever you exchange information with other people. This is especially important when mixing with people from different circles. Completely different backgrounds, nationalities, and social circles mean different information and different perspectives. A simple email can save someone in your network lots of time and/or be extremely useful to their success.
Enhance and diversify your knowledge base.
Sure you can surf the internet for information, but unknown reviewers and hidden advertising is not the same as getting information from someone who can help you put it in context: why do they like it? how do they use it? Sharing your valuable experiences with others will encourage them to do the same and it strengthens the give and take aspect of any relationship.
You can network with anyone.
It’s not always personal. The people you want to network with aren’t always going to be the people you take out for a beer or the ones you take a vacation with. Sometimes you will need to network with people that are simply looking to network. They want to connect with you because of one of the reasons above, and they want you to do the same.
How to Network Once You’re There
I already revealed to you that I don’t have any problems approaching strangers. I realize not everyone can be an extrovert, but the important thing to remember is: what do you have to lose? There are a million ways to make a fool of yourself, the least embarassing is by introducing yourself to a stranger.
These tips could work 100% online as well as offline, though realize that some of the steps (like “be interested” or “contact information”) are easier to do when someone has an online profile or web site. This means that you will have to work harder to show you’re really interested and not regurgitate the person’s “About” page to them in an email. If it’s a contact worth having, learn about them.
Introduce yourself in context
Maybe your job as a network engineer has nothing to do with your appearance at a food photography course, but you don’t know who it will be interesting to. Give others a chance to be interested by telling a little about yourself.
If you’re introducing yourself, and you have a connection to that person in some way, state it, even if it is having read something about them or something they’ve written.
“Jeff has told me that you’re working on a really interesting project about mushrooms.”
“Hello, I read an article about you attending the X conference. Why did you say sales would decrease?”
Introduce yourself with information that a) establishes you as a resource and b) positions you to receive information.
“I’ve been working in network engineering (resource) and web development (resource) for years, but I’ve been getting involved in food photography (receive info) and investigating becoming a sommelier (receive info)”
Online tip: If you’re contacting a blog author, speak about how their blog speaks to you, even cite a favorite post. “Great blog” is a nice compliment but it gives very little information to the author about who you are and why you enjoy what they write. Be sincere – you can spot insincerity from a mile away.
I got my current job by networking. When introducing himself, my student told me that he had no need to work on his technical English skills as he used them daily, but instead wanted to practice conversation. I could have nodded and forged ahead with conversation about upcoming vacation plans. Instead, I quickly introduced myself in context by commenting on what a shame that was, since I had quite a bit of technical experience, and briefly described some of my qualifications. From that moment on, the lesson became an interview.
Since location where you meet someone is not always enough context to tell you about them, ask about someone’s job or hobbies to give you a context about the world they pass the major part of their time in. It also gives them a chance to explain future interests or something they’ve got going on right now. Not everyone knows to explain what they’re looking for or what they do. Give them a chance by asking!
Request Contact Information
Don’t be afraid to ask someone you find interesting for a business card, the spelling of their name and/or website and jot it in a notebook you’re carrying (a Moleskine works great for this).
Make notes on the back of the business card when you meet someone to help you recall important details later – the event you met them at, what you talked about, and what they’re interested in. If you’re not comfortable doing this in front of the person, make sure you take 10 seconds to jot it down before you forget. This will also help you avoid sending a email like this one: “I met you at this event” when they weren’t actually there.
Always be ready to network. Have your business cards with you or other form of contact information. Rather than writing another address on the back of the card, create another one entirely for personal networking. I carry my (personal networking) Moo cards with me at all times in addition to my business cards.
One of the biggest mistakes would-be networkers make is not following up with the contacts they make. Contact the people you meet, and start a dialogue. An email of “Thank you, nice to meet you” doesn’t prompt the reader to do anything. Pass them some information, ask a question, propose the next time and place for a meetup. Use this opportunity to introduce this person to some people they don’t know if there’s an event already planned. Make yourself useful before you “use” – people are more likely to respond to genuine interest.
I met someone working on her masters’ thesis in interaction design. A few weeks later, I came across an article about her research topic and I immediately thought of her. I sent her an email with the link and a quick hello. What did that cost me? About 30 seconds of my time, and hopefully it was useful to her. But more importantly, it demonstrated that I was interested in her and the things that interest her.
Networking Still Not for You?
Network where and how it works for you. Networking get-togethers too much? Initiate individual contact with people. Drinks not your scene? Try lunch. Find a way for you to become a better networker. Go out for a coffee, check out a bookshop together. Attend a knitting event or an art show.
Probably the best advice I’ve seen on networking: (source)
Find the key nodes in the network.
…If networking wears you out, you will be better off finding the ten key people who all know lots of other people, than finding and maintaining fifty relationships.
More Information about Networking
How to get Involved
- Online: LinkedIn, Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Orkut
- In Italy: Expats in Italy, Slow Travel, MilanIn (check my Italy links for more)
- Some restaurant/location review communities like Yelp or Chowhound have offline events, too!
- Hobby groups and forums like Flickr (photos), Last.fm (music), Ravelry (knitting)
- Meet people – with your couch Couchsurfing, or Meetup.com
- Your university alumni groups and Reunion.com or Classmates.com
- Make your own social network with Ning
To read more about networking, check out these books:
- Never Eat Alone – Turn any situation into an opportunity to meet someone, learn something, and increase your network!
- The Tipping Point – though not strictly about networking, it’s an excellent book about spreading ideas and concepts. Are you a Maven, a Salesman or a Connector?
- Love is the Killer App – A book that advocates loving and love sharing knowledge and information with others. What’s there not to like?
- Dig Your Well before You’re Thirsty – boldly claims it’s the only networking book you’ll need.
Do you have a tip for networking? Do you dislike networking? Where are the best places to network? Looking for some information? Let us know in the comments with “I’m looking for a way to…”