Networking at Events: A Beginner's Guide
As a graduate job seeker, you’ve probably already heard your fair share of seniors, peers, and career advisors chanting: “Network, network, network if you want to succeed!”
Yet ironically, networking events can be incredibly daunting, turning even the most eloquent of us into awkward stutterers.
After all, aside from the need to obtain information from new acquaintances, you’re also pressured to juggle building new connections, strengthening old ones, as well as maintaining a professional image in front of potential employers.
With so much multitasking going on – and with your future at stake, too – it’s understandable why you may find yourself so edgy and anxious during such events.
How do I start a conversation with someone? Can I join that group that started their conversation fifteen minutes ago, or would it be rude? Wow, that’s a big shot CEO – should I even approach him for a conversation? Ack, awkward pause – what do I say now?!
That said, the rewards you reap from good networking are definitely worth the effort it takes to overcome all this apprehension!
Here are some tips to help you boost your networking skills.
Prepare and Practise
Networking is not something that comes naturally to anyone, not even the most extroverted of us. It is, in fact, a learnable skill that requires constant practice.
Of course, that’s not to say that you should start talking to your reflection in the mirror! Most of your contacts can typically be divided into the following categories:
- Casual networks: Contacts whom you've met at open networking events or mixed industry events
- Knowledge networks: Contacts from professional associations that caters to the improvement and regulation of a specific industry
- Strong contact networks: Contacts from groups established exclusively for building professional relationships
- Online networks: Contacts whom you obtain from social media services
Use these categories as a guideline to help you expand your networks, but remember: you don’t necessarily need to build up on all four categories to succeed in your job search. Instead, expand the different categories according to the need of your desired job.
For example, if you’re looking for employment as a social media strategist, you might find it more beneficial for you to have more contacts from the knowledge and online networks instead of casual networks. Alternatively, marketing people might be find the opposite to be more useful.
That said, you can flex your interaction and networking muscle in any of them as they’ll be using the same skills.
The ability to make small talk, for instance, is a crucial skill that you’ll need to have when networking. You can start out by practicing with friends, people you meet during student club activities, or recruiters at talks and career fairs.
Try to keep abreast on current issues or the latest news – those are always good conversation starters. Or, when in doubt, ask the other party questions about themselves. We all love talking about ourselves, after all!
Your university careers services centre may also organise workshops or courses on successful networking. These are almost always free to current students anyway, so why not attend one or two to clock in some hours of guided practice?
Start early, because you can’t learn how to be a good networker overnight. Rather, it takes plenty of trial-and-error to find an approach that works best for you.
Ultimately, it’s all about rehearsing to the point that you’re confident enough to carry a conversation during any networking sessions while still being yourself.
Focus on your V.C.P.
While it’s true that the hidden purpose of networking is for you to obtain a favour or opportunity from your contacts, the sentiment behind the relationships you form is very real.
You need to develop not just familiarity with your contacts, but also trust before you can request anything from them.
In other words, networking is a long-term investment of trust and confidence between individuals. There are three primary components to this:
- Visibility: Your contacts need to know who you are.
- Credibility: Your contact needs to know your intentions, character, and capabilities.
- Profitability: Your contact has to know that they can trust you enough that they’re willing to help you.
Recruiters don’t expect new graduates to be overachievers, but they want to be able to see your interest in them and their company, as well as the sincerity that you have in applying.
Make it a point to show up at multiple company events, speeches, or fairs. Approach them and make your interest in the company clear and consistent.
If possible, always take time to catch up with the same individuals whom you’ve approached before so that you can develop familiarity and trust with them. Who knows? They might be the ones to put in a good word on your behalf when the time is right!
The same basic rules of building relationships still apply, though: never lie, and avoid “overselling” yourself. Not only is this detrimental to your relationship with that particular contact if the falsehood is discovered; it damages your professional reputation as well!
Open with an “elevator pitch”
The average person’s attention span while performing a task lasts no more than 10 to 20 seconds (Actually, according to the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information, it’s dropped down to 8 seconds now – even shorter than a goldfish’s! But that’s beside the point).
So remember that you only have a limited time span to highlight your selling points before the other party’s focus turns elsewhere!
Come prepared with a 30-second “elevator pitch” so that when recruiters ask you the ubiquitous “So what do you do?” question, you won’t be floundering around for an answer.
Be sure to include the necessary information – who you are, what you’re studying, where your interests lie or why you’re here – and make sure to keep it concise.
Alternatively, prepare two or three introductory points about yourself if you don’t feel like giving a 30-second pitch. It’s really not that hard, too.
Just choose something that you’ll be excited to talk about and that will portray you as a knowledgeable, capable person, and you’ll do just fine!
Sustaining conversation with the “ED” rule
Introducing yourself is only the easy part. Once you’re done with that, you’ll be faced with Challenge #2: sustaining a conversation – which can be quite a draining experience in itself.
There are a lot of ways to go about this, but one of the chief suggestions is the “ED” rule. Rather than trying to make yourself interesting, be interestED instead in the other party.
Remember, you’re here to learn, gain information, and to build connections – so it’s always advisable to listen to other people instead of talking about yourself.
“But hang on a second,” you say. “Aren’t we supposed to promote ourselves at networking events?”
Well, do you think that recruiters would forget a polite, attentive graduate who’s always interested to hear more about their company? Promoting yourself and standing out is not solely a verbal exercise. Sometimes, your actions speak louder than your words.
That said, don’t get too star-struck at networking events either! Be sure to chime in with intelligent thoughts every now and then to showcase your intellect.
You want to show your interest and learn a thing or two from them, but do not let them undermine your competency either.
Talk beyond business
Another way to establish your reputation as a great conversationalist is also by connecting with others on a level beyond business.
Recruiters and company representatives are also people with hobbies and interests, and – like everyone else – are often happy to meet others who share the same passions.
Bond over common interests, such as food, movies, fashion, sports teams, pets, or books. Put your observation skills to use, too. Distinctive cufflinks, ties, keychain, and jewelleries can evoke interesting topics that leave an impression on your contacts!
Use this opportunity to also show your keen eye for details.
If you’re nervous, speak to other students, interns, or the event organisers to test the waters first. Find out what are good small talk topics that you can use to approach the “big shots”.
If no one seems interested in your talk about Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” or John Green’s tearjerker “The Fault in Our Stars”, then maybe you’ll want to leave that out.
It may be a good idea to stay away from touchy subjects like politics and religion too! These are topics reserved for deep discussions over a cup of coffee (or booze) between close-knit friends, not new acquaintances.
This is one of the most important aspects of a networking session, and yet the one most often forgotten! Remember, there is really no point in attending a networking session if you’re not going to make the effort to follow up with any new contacts you’ve made.
If you’ve promised to do something for someone, such as give them a call, send an email, or connect person A to person B – do it, and do it as soon as you can. There cannot be more emphasis placed on this.
Keeping your promises in a timely manner helps you build your reputation as a prompt and responsible character. Also, if you are somehow able to help connect a contact in your network with someone else who can benefit them, they’re bound to return the favour in the future too!
Put the business cards you’ve collected to good use as well – especially those from recruiters! Write a proper email thanking them for their time and insights, and sign off with a memorable detail from your conversation so that it leaves an impression on them.
This way, they’ll be less likely to forget you if you bump into them again in the future.