If you want to groan every time you hear the word “networking,” well, I don’t exactly blame you. The word conjures images of uncomfortable schmooze-fests, where suit-clad business executives work the room, wine glass in hand, feigned interest at the ready. Who would enjoy that?
But guess what? Networking doesn’t have to be that bad—in fact, it shouldn’t be. The goal is to meet new people and expand your professional network, and there’s no reason those activities have to be confined to conferences and industry happy hours.
All it takes is a little imagination, and networking might even be kind of fun. These five ideas will help you get started.
1. Reinvent the Meet-and-Mingle
Is there an activity you’ve been wanting to try, or a new skill you’d like to learn? Pick an activity—like taking up golf, learning to make your own wine, joining a book club, or anything else that other stressed-out professionals might do to unwind—and try it out! (Groupon is a great place to look for new ideas.) People in a relaxed, social setting are usually more open to conversation, which makes this the perfect opportunity to open up, ask questions, and build new relationships.
2. Be In With the In Crowd
In nearly every big city, there are at least a few restaurants where the politicos, the PR people, or the state workers like to go to mingle with their own. Even professional chefs have their favorite after-hours haunts. And a little legwork or friendly conversation with a knowledgeable bartender will give you some ideas of the hot spots in your industry. So, pick your place, grab a friend, cozy up to the bar, and strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Putting yourself (literally) next to other people in your field will increase your chances of networking success.
3. Take Up a Cause
Consider volunteering your time where your heart is. Pick a local church, animal sanctuary, or non-profit where you can put in a few hours after work or on a weekend alongside other people in your area. Or, lend your professional expertise to a neighborhood school: Put together a presentation (complete with handouts) about your field for career night, when parents (read: new contacts) are also in attendance.
4. Work It
Fundraisers usually have no trouble finding people who are happy to fork over $200, get dressed up, and enjoy the wine and hors d’oeuvres—what they really need is extra hands. So call your favorite charity and offer to work the registration desk. You'll get to be there for the entire event, you’ll have a built-in chance to meet and talk with the (often high-profile) attendees, and you won’t have to pay a dime to do so.
5. Reconnect With Your Past
College and high school reunions or alumni events are the hidden gems of the networking world. They offer a room full of people with diverse interests and careers who you already know (or at least, who you have something to talk about with)! So, after you reminisce with your former classmates, club-mates, and sorority sisters, strike up a conversation about their careers, and talk about yours. Your old friends could be (or at least put you in touch with) valuable connections.
Whether you're looking to leave your dead-end job or just want to connect with people who may lead you to your next career move, face-to-face networking is still one of the best job search tactics out there. And if you’re willing to think outside the box, it might actually be fun, too.