One of the most valuable tools I have in my professional kit is my network. In my role as Director of Marketing and Communications here at SMUS, I call on my network all the time. People in my network help answer my questions, they give me feedback on ideas and projects, and they help me stay current in my field. When I first moved to Victoria more than a dozen years ago, my network connected me with job opportunities and helped me get to know my new city and its quirks.
Building a good professional network is a lot like investing: the younger you are when you start, the more valuable your network will be when you really need it. That’s why the school hosts a networking event as part of Career Day where students have the opportunity to make new connections with alumni, parents and guest speakers.
When you walk into this year’s Career Day networking reception on January 28, you may be overcome by nerves at the prospect of approaching a complete stranger and starting a conversation. There’s no getting around it: networking at events can be awkward. The sooner you accept and embrace that reality, the more you’ll enjoy these opportunities to meet new people. Remember that the beauty of networking events is that everyone is there for the same reason and everyone is feeling the same awkwardness you feel.
Here are some of my favourite tips for surviving and thriving at a networking event:
- Branch out. Too often at networking events we tend to spend more time talking to the people we know rather than getting to know new people. It’s more comfortable to talk to people we know, but it’s not networking so get out there!
- Connect with someone standing alone. If you feel intimidated, they are likely feeling the same way. Consider the conversation you start with that person as rescuing him or her and yourself from the nerves that come with these kind of occasions.
- Follow etiquette. Shake hands, give your name and tell that person one or two important things about yourself: “My name is Laura. I’m a student at SMUS.” Be sure to make eye contact and speak slowly enough so that it’s easy to catch your name.
- Bring questions to help you start a good conversation. Have questions prepared before you go to an event. A few good ones for a starting conversation include: “What brought you to this event?”; “Where are you from?”; “Where did you/do you go to school?”; “What kind of work do you do?” Never start a conversation with “What do you do?” It’s much friendlier to lead up to questions about work and professions. If you know who will be at an event, you may want to look that person up on LinkedIn and find things you might have in common. (I swear, it’s not stalking — it’s why people join LinkedIn!)
- Know how and when to end a conversation and move on. At networking events, 10 minutes is usually enough to establish a few points of connection. Don’t time your conversations by looking at your watch, just judge by the conversation itself whether it’s time to move on (i.e., you run out of conversation). If the person is someone you want to connect with at a future date, say the following: “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you — can I connect with you by email or LinkedIn?” Once the person has given you a card or told you how to find them online, thank them, shake their hand and move on to another conversation.
Meeting a person once doesn’t automatically make them part of your network. If you want that person to be someone you can contact later in your career, follow up with them formally either by email or through a LinkedIn message:
- Be timely. Send a follow up email 1-2 days after contact is made.
- Mention something positive about your interaction. Something like: “I really enjoyed the networking tips that you provided us. I felt empowered to connect with professionals and I appreciate that.”
- Let your new contact know how you might want to connect with them in the future. For example: “As I explore my career options, I would be interested in connecting with you at some point to ask you some questions about your career path.”
I hope those tips help you as much as they’ve helped me in the past. And if you’re at the January 28 networking event, don’t forget to introduce yourself to me or reconnect with me if we’ve met already.