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Advice / Job Search / Networking

4 Ways to Make a Real Connection When Networking

A couple months ago, I met a woman at an event who had clearly done her research on networking. She had a smart conversation starter and a great handshake. She asked lots of questions and listened to my answers attentively. She gave me her business card before we parted ways.

By the book, right?

Well, yes, but almost to a fault. Her smiles, nods, and questions felt forced, her answers rehearsed, and her motivations pretty obvious. It felt like the networking equivalent of someone who recites scripted answers in a job interview—she was saying all the right things, but she wasn’t doing anything to make a real connection.

And that, my friends, is the true purpose of networking. It’s not about distributing as many business cards as possible—it’s about making real connections with people so that they remember you and want to stay in touch after the event. So that they can’t imagine not staying in touch with you after the event!

No, of course you’re not going to make instant best-professional-friends with every person you meet, but there are a few things you can do to move beyond the networking basics and make sure you’re remembered as more than just a business card. At your next event, try these tips to make a real connection.

1. Be Yourself

Step 1: Relax.

Seriously. You’re interesting, you’re likeable, and you have a lot to say—just ask your friends and family. So, instead of entering into conversations trying to find the perfect thing to say or worrying that you’re not interesting or witty enough, just pretend you’re at a dinner party with your closest friends, and be yourself.

It sounds silly, but I’ve found that one of the best ways to remind myself to be, well, myself, is to wear something that makes me feel great. When I wear a suit, I feel like some buttoned-up, stock-photo version of myself, and I probably come off like that in conversation. But when I wear something more “me”—like one of my favorite dresses and a great necklace—I’m instantly more relaxed and comfortable.

2. Be Open

Along similar lines, don’t be afraid to open up to people a bit. In networking settings, we often tend to put on our strictly-business faces, and while it’s important to be professional, sharing a little bit more about yourself is a great way to make connections. As Achim Nowak, author of Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within, explained in a recent article: “When we reveal something personal, it gives your listener permission to do the same. I don’t believe in oversharing, but the more risks we take in being vulnerable, the more people are drawn to us because we seem real.”

In other words, it’s OK to say, respond to “How are you?” with “You know what—I was having a great day, until I had a bomb go off at work this afternoon. Let’s just say I’m happy to be here!” Or, when someone asks you where you’re from, try, “I’m from Florida. I’m actually headed down there next month for my class reunion—and I’m a little nervous!” By sharing a little bit more than you usually would, you’ve instantly made yourself more relatable and more memorable, and you’ve opened the door for (more interesting) future conversation.

3. Be Inquisitive

Of course—it’s not all about you: People love talking about themselves. So, especially if you’re shy, ask questions that get the other person to open up, going beyond the basics of “How do you like working at your company?” and “How’d you get into that?” While those are great conversation starters, you’ll be have a much more memorable conversation if you ask something that disarms them a bit.

One good way to do this is to be specific—even if it’s a little random. For example, when I tell people I travel a lot for work, responses like, “Oh, you’re the perfect person to ask—any tips for taking a red-eye?” or “Seriously, is there any good place to eat at LAX?” lead to more interesting conversation than does one like, “Oh, how do you like traveling?”

Another option is asking people for advice. I’ve found you’ll get people to relax and share more details when you position networking go-tos like “How’d you get into marketing?” as something that solicits their personal advice: “I’m actually looking to make a move into marketing myself—I’d love to hear any tips you have for getting my foot in the door.”

4. Be Generous

Finally, a great way to make a lasting connection is to be helpful if you can be. I’ve found that when I offer a piece of advice, some expertise, or to make an introduction to a contact, people are thrilled—more than you’d think. They’re also more likely to stay in touch when they know you are a great resource for them.

You don’t have to go overboard here—no reason to offer to make an introduction to your CEO for a person you just met—but if there are little ways you can help out, do. For example, small offers like “You’re trying to hire an intern to manage your blog? I had great luck posting a listing with NYU’s journalism school. Let me send you a link” or “My friend just got a job at Google—I can see if she’d be open to giving you some interview tips” can really do wonders. Build up that good networking karma and it’ll return to you. Promise.

Yes, networking is about getting your name, face, and business card out there into the world. But more importantly, it’s about making real connections. So, relax, be yourself, and think more about just engaging with other people than about what you’re going to ask or say next. You’re bound to make a lasting impression.

Photo of women networking courtesy of Shutterstock.