Paula Fendley, Ed.D.
paula@paulafendley.com

Do you struggle knowing what to say in networking groups? Does anxiety in social situations sometimes leave you speechless? In many cases, extroverts tend to have an easier time meeting new people and initiating conversations. It can be intimidating for a lot of us to go to a networking event and walk confidently into a room full of people, especially those we don’t know. Now, during these uncertain times, many people are finding creative ways to network virtually and for some, the lack technical expertise just adds to the apprehension in these situations. Whether in person or on a digital platform, preparation and practice can help you overcome your fears and find ways to connect with others, have meaningful conversations, and build lasting relationships.

1. Start with the familiar

Start making connections with people you already know and ask them to introduce you to others. Friends and family will likely feel more approachable and willing to help. Think about friends and colleagues with whom you may have lost touch and re-connect through e-mail and phone conversations.

The networking journey is unique to each individual so branch out gradually to more and more strangers and realize that you have a chance to connect with people during daily activities when you are buying groceries, working out, having your car repaired, and more. Focus on making genuine connections and building relationships.

2. Seek out relevant connections

Look for networking groups aligned with your interests, area of specialization, and values. Reach out to the membership chair and arrange to attend a meeting in person or online. If the networking event is virtual, become intimately familiar with the platform and practice using it so you can participate easily and focus on your engagement with others. Failing to do so will only increase your anxiety and limit your ability to effectively connect.

Use social media to connect with like-minded individuals and important contacts through LinkedIn, Facebook, and others. Ask questions and comment on posts to generate a conversation and establish rapport. Recruiters and interviewers often peruse social media profiles so be sure to update information regularly and be certain you do not overshare or post anything potentially offensive. Assume everything you post is public.

3. Prepare and practice

Take time to prepare before you attend a networking event. Create and practice your 30-second “elevator speech” in the mirror, with a trusted family member or friend and ask for feedback. Practice until you have the speech memorized so that it flows easily and naturally. Watch your “air time” and remember to keep it short, to the point, and dynamic. It is more about raising awareness about your strengths and value than selling yourself. Above all, be friendly and warm and remember to smile!

Write down and practice ice-breaker questions you can use to get to know people and really listen to their answers. Many people fail to really “hear” what others are saying because they become distracted or they are thinking of what they are going to say next. Listening with authenticity can create a meaningful and memorable connection.

Finding similarities with others can help facilitate a conversation. Consider using your hobbies and passions as you plan for discussions. Write out “your story” covering who you are and what you love about your work. This will give you clarity and content to use when appropriate. Try and steer clear of any topics that might be controversial, so you don’t alienate anyone right from the start. Be intentional with what you will ask and what you are comfortable sharing. Being thoughtful and prepared is key.

4. Be supportive

A kind word goes a long way, and everyone has something to offer. Whether it be a specific skill or words of encouragement, focusing on the other person demonstrates your value and your ability to consider others’ needs. It can also give you an opportunity to touch base later and provide assistance in the future.  Other people will appreciate your thoughtfulness and these relationships can make a huge difference in building your network.

5. Find a way to follow up

After an initial meeting, it is critical to follow up without being overbearing. A simple email or text may be appropriate for some, while others may be open to deeper discussions. Depending on the conversation, you may want to stay in touch with an individual by sharing new research findings or an article relating to an interest you have in common. Find creative ways to connect with people in your network three or four times a year.

6. Leave an impression

The simple exchange of business cards, whether paper or digital, can help you build a lasting impression. Paper cards are still widely used and make it easy to communicate your brand and contact information. Bring your card into the 21st century by adding digital components to your card like QR codes linking to your marketing content and be sure to include your social media icons as well. Unfortunately, however, people don’t often take time to add these valuable contacts to their address book and the cards tend to be lost or eventually thrown away. Business card scanner apps can save you time and energy. These innovative tools use your smartphone’s camera to scan the cards capturing the information and adding them to your contacts.

Digital cards have also become increasingly popular and with COVID-19 still lingering, might present a better option. Not to mention they are more eco-friendly and save paper! There are a variety of digital card programs and your smartphone can capture and store contact information at your fingertips. While different programs have different methods for swapping cards, they are generally easy to use with free and low-cost options.

Sending a personal thank you note is always appreciated. Whether you are following up after an interview or thanking someone for a referral or recommendation, taking the time to express your gratitude can enhance your relationships with others.  Sending an email is nice, but you might consider sending a handwritten note. So few people do this today that it can really cause you to make a positive impact and stand out from the crowd.

As you begin or continue your networking journey, remember to be yourself and, when needed, push yourself beyond your comfort zone and be open to new people and possibilities. Prepare in advance, practice what you will say, stay positive, and don’t take rejection personally. Some connections will lead to opportunities and some will not, but every step is progress. You have value so let your light shine and share your gift with the world. Grow your network and stay focused on creating a career you love.