“Get out and network more.”
“Just talk to more people!”
“Why not ask someone for help, maybe in your network?”
Have you ever heard any of the above when you are talking about networking? Doesn’t it make you want to stab the person who said it in the eye?
Yeah. Me too.
Here’s the thing that I love about networking, though: Everything awesome in your career comes directly from it. I know, that’s a big statement, but it’s true. New ideas for your career, support for when you want to kill your boss, information about salary, inside intel on promotions, help figuring out what you’re good at doing, what companies are hiring—basically everything.
Here’s what I hate: No one likes to talk details about how to do it! Or even the big picture strategy behind why certain things work. Telling someone to just “go and network” does not actually help them accomplish it.
So, let’s pull back the curtain and talk. Seriously.
1. Networking’s Totally Natural
So you can take a deep breath about feeling like a bother (or anxious mess), and put your anxiety to use.
When people ask me for help, the number one thing they want help with is how to be more confident in these situations. How do they stop feeling so, well, bad, when they reach out to people?
Such a great question! First off, we as humans have been wired to network since the dawn of time. We’ve done it by banding together and sharing knowledge in small migrant groups, knowledge that helped keep us alive. Then we started building societies and cities and did the same thing! When we share and learn from each other, we survive, grow, and have more fun. It’s actually pretty awesome. And it happens more than you think.
For example: Anytime you ask for a restaurant recommendation or catch up with someone you bump into while running errands, you are networking. Seriously.
I hope you feel slightly better.
But if not, I want you to remember this as well: If you’re tied up in knots worried about bothering someone by asking for help, you are almost 100% guaranteed not to be a bother. Why? Because you are so worried about it, you are much more likely to be polite, thoughtful, and courteous when you do reach out—and that’s a recipe for success. Never knew your anxiety could help, eh?
2. The Best Way to Network Is to Be a Human
The good news here? You already are!
How many times have you agonized over what to say to someone in an email or at an event? You want to be polite, but not impertinent, formal but nice, clear but interesting. Ugh, so stressful.
Here’s the good news about networking: It’s really just based in human connection. We like people more when we feel connected to them.
Here’s the bad news: It’s hard to connect with a stilted mess. So take a second and take stock of you.
What do you like about yourself? Your sense of humor? Your smile? Your ability to make witty comments? Your listening skills?
Write down a few of things that you like. Now, when you next reach out to someone, put that list front and center. If you are funny, feel free to be a little funny in your email. If you are charming, be charming. If you love your smile, use it!
Embrace you. That’s what people respond to, and that’s what will make them comfortable (and therefore more likely to connect) with you.
But what if you struggle with this, or just feel awkward (despite your list?).
Well, one way to connect is to…
3. Name the Elephant in the Room
Sometimes it’s okay to state the obvious about what’s happening with you or the event:
“Hi, I normally feel really awkward walking up to a stranger at an event, but I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone, so I thought I’d say hello.”
“Wow, is it me or was no one paying attention to that speaker? Did you notice?”
“Hello. I promised myself I’d have two conversations with new people today, do you mind being one of them?”
And if you’ve lost touch with someone then it’s okay be open about it, like this: “Hey—I know it’s been forever since we last chatted and I feel like I fell into a hole. But I was thinking of you yesterday and wanted to say hello!”
People connect with you when you tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is that you feel awkward, or that you have let a lot of time go by, and that’s normal. Don’t be afraid to own it.
4. Real Flattery Also Works
I love using sincere flattery in any situation—but especially over email. People love to feel smart, or wise, or interesting, and taking the time to do a little research and send a compliment really (really!) works.
Why? Because it makes them feel good and valued. And who doesn’t want to reward that!
Something as simple as: “I loved reading your last blog on Bigfoot. Your theory that he is really an alien is fascinating! Would you mind telling me more of how you started blogging?”
“You’ve worked at two companies I really admire, and your path is so interesting. Would you mind telling me more about how you started and your industry?”
“Your Twitter updates make me laugh, I had to reach out and say thank you!”
“I love your shoes/earrings/phone/watch—I had to come over and compliment you on it.”
The point is that any (important: sincere) flattery goes a long way and get the person in question to feel good things about you. Good feelings mean more help for you. Why? Because they know you’ve been paying attention, and that makes you worth their time.
So, don’t be afraid to reach out with a kind remark to people. Most likely, when you need their help later, they will remember you!
5. Some People Are Busy (Also Awful)
About 70% of people are awesome. Maybe 20% are really socially awkward, and 10% are just jerks.
Sometimes you’ll reach out to someone and he or she’ll want to respond but be busy, or be having a bad day, or a million other responsibilities that have nothing to do with you.
That happens, and it’s OK. Don’t stress about it, just follow up one to two more times, and then walk away. They are not for you—but plenty of people are.
And some people are kind of snobby, and you’ll walk up and start a conversation and they will be kind of a jerk about it. They’ll make you feel bad by not responding to your email, or by not being friendly at an event, or by not paying attention to what you are saying, and it happens. That’s their insecurities in action, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
Again, not everyone is for you, so if you meet one of them just move on. But the good news is that most people are pretty nice, so don’t give up on humanity yet.
6. But Most of Us Feel Like You!
So truly, it’s OK.
Remember that awkward feeling? Yeah, almost all of us feel it. So, if you’re standing alone at an event, and you see someone else standing alone, chances are he will be 1000% grateful that you came up and talked to him. Seriously. Wouldn’t you be?
And if you feel uncomfortable in the middle of a conversation, he probably does too. Why? Because it’s a little unnerving to put yourself out there, and not everyone is great at it. You aren’t alone in this, but keep doing it because it is natural. If you do it enough, you’ll find your people!
So relax—you’ve totally got this networking thing! No, really: If you keep these truths in mind the next time you hit an event, you’ll find it to be a whole lot easier than you thought.
Need more help? Here’s an awesome video and worksheet to help you create a network completely from thin air—in less than five minutes!