The following post is an extract from the Little Black Book. I decided to write this chapter because I'm convinced that the ability to network effectively is one of the most important career skills you can master, particularly if you work in the creative industries where people you know are very often the best sources of new opportunities. Yet networking tends to get a bad rep, with lots of people thinking it consists solely of stuffy corporate events and business card-toting suits (and yup, in some cases it does). For every born networker, there’s another person standing nearby who’d rather drink cold paint than ‘work the room’. But love it or loathe it, the art of successful networking is crucial to your career development - whether you’re just starting out or a bit more established. The saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ hasn’t become a cliché without good reason.
I actually quite enjoy networking - I'm incredibly curious (read: nosy), so I like meeting new people and getting the chance to ask them questions, but I'm also very aware that it's not something that comes easily to everyone. Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me in the past - read on for the 411 on graceful networking.
NETWORK IN ALL DIRECTIONS
It’s all very well and good pitching the power players in your industry, but chances are they’re pretty busy, and you’ll also be competing with a lot of other people for their time. Peer-to-peer networking (i.e. meeting people who are at similar points in their careers to you) is equally as important – it can be just as helpful to bounce ideas off your peers as someone more senior, so don’t neglect the networking opportunities more readily available to you. Plus, your career and those of your peers will probably progress in tandem, so the relationships you build now could be even more helpful further down the line – effective networking is all about playing the long game.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Sure, John F Kennedy might have been talking about being President of the United States when he said that, but it’s a principle that can quite easily be applied to networking. The best networkers are genuinely interested in others’ projects and problems, and not just what they can get out of a given situation. Be known as someone who offers to help as well as asking for things, and make an effort to nurture professional relationships on an on-going basis – not just when you need something. Not only are people more likely to engage with you if they see your relationship as being mutually beneficial, it’s also just good karma!
"Make an effort to nurture professional relationships on an on-going basis – not just when you need something."
Whether you’re at an industry event or a one-on-one meeting, don’t just launch straight into your elevator pitch when striking up a conversation with people. This is one scenario where small talk is good talk. When you do get down to work chat, ask about people’s current projects. Most people tend to light up given a chance to talk about what they’re working on at the moment, and asking about that as opposed to just interrogating them about their job title gives the conversation more chance to develop. You’ve probably heard about good conversationalists asking open-ended questions, and this is just an extension of that principle.
Be open-minded about where you might meet interesting professional contacts. Networking doesn’t have to be limited to specialist industry events. You’re just as likely to meet interesting people in social situations, and through friends.
Getting that all-important face-time often starts out with an email, which means sending a missive into an already overflowing inbox. So how can you make your email stand out?
Declaration of intent
Make the purpose of your email clear from the outset. A punchy subject line could be the difference between someone opening your email and sending it straight to Trash, so make sure it doesn’t sound spam-y or generic. Don’t hide your light under a bushel either – if you’ve got something compelling to say that you think is likely to elicit a response, don’t save it for the last line of your email. Signpost that in the subject of the email too.
Keep it concise
Hands down the most important thing to remember when sending emails to people you don't know is that your initial email shouldn’t be more than a few sentences – don’t write an essay, because it won’t get read. If the person you’re contacting wants more information, you can follow up with that if and when they reply, and are more engaged.
Outline why you’re getting in touch with them in particular. People can smell a template mass email a mile off, and they won’t respond – personalise your email so it’s directly relevant to them or their work.
Have a clear ask
The recipient of your email should be left with a clear question, so avoid generic phrases like ‘pick your brain’ at all costs (even if that’s what you want). Don’t make them have to work to figure out what you want – make it as easy as possible for them to say ‘yes’ by hanging the structure of your email around one or two clear asks.
Don’t be afraid to follow up with people if you don’t get a response, although give it a week or so before you chase. Don’t badger people with emails either – two follow ups is probably the limit before you start to become a pest, so if they haven’t replied by that point it’s probably time to call it quits.
Emails and LinkedIn are great for making initial contact, but nothing beats the power of a face-to-face meeting. A thirty-minute coffee date is 100x more powerful than dozens of emails, so when you’re reaching out cold to someone, meeting them in person should be your go-to goal for all but the most cursory of relationships. Always gun for that if you think it’s an option as people are more likely to remember or help out people they feel they know - and you can’t get to know an email address. Once you’ve got that all important face-time scheduled, here’s how to get the most out of it.
"Emails and LinkedIn are great for making initial contact, but nothing beats the power of a face-to-face meeting."
Be on time
...This one doesn’t really need explaining.
Do your research
Don’t turn up armed with questions that a cursory Google could have revealed the answer to. It’s lazy, and a waste of both your time.
Have a clear ask (again)
As with an email, you should have a clear ask or goal in mind for the meeting. If you’re the one who’s initiated the meeting, be prepared to steer the conversation – don’t make your contact do the work.
Wrap up on time
Don’t make your contact late for their next meeting. Keep an eye on the clock and stick to the amount of time agreed, unless they say they’re happy to stay for longer.
Send an email thanking them for their time within a day or two, while you’re still fresh on their mind (although don’t do this straight after the meeting – it’s a little aggressive). This is also a good opportunity to remind them of anything they agreed to do or send, and for you to do likewise.
Hope this helps - happy networking!