The Complete Guide To Networking For People Who Don’t Like It
Everything I know about making this essential career skill work for you
Networking is a process that, if it’s to be done right, takes serious commitment, time, and hard work. It’s one of those things you either love or hate.
Some people absolutely thrive on networking. They live for it, finding it to be the most enjoyable part of their ‘work.’ Others, however, find it intimidating, anxiety-provoking, awkward, and something to be avoided whenever possible.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Networking doesn’t have to be stifling small talk about the weather with total strangers, sales pitches, endless free tote bags, or awkward, text-based conversations over the internet.
A high-quality network of like-minded individuals can function as a source of confidence, support, collaboration, and opportunity. This is why building such a network is absolutely worth your time and effort.
After reading this guide, you’ll not only have several ideas about how to make networking fun (yes, fun!), but you’ll also have a complete plan to help you put those ideas into practice and then reap all the benefits.
How to Network
Here’s a little truth bomb — I used to hate networking. When I started attending events and reaching out to people online, I felt stupid and uncomfortable. I was convinced that nobody would care about what I could offer them.
Yet, the more I networked, the better I got at it. Over time, I realised I just needed to keep working at it in order to use it to my advantage. I had no choice but to put myself in uncomfortable situations so that I could learn how to deal with them. Eventually, I actually learned to thrive in them.
If you’re at the start of your own networking journey, listen up. All you really need to succeed when it comes to this ‘game’ is a dedication to practicing your people skills, a refusal to give up, some old-fashioned guts, and, of course, a little bit of guidance.
I can’t exactly help you with the first factors, but as for guidance, I’ve got you covered!
Here are the key topics we’ll be diving into:
1. Why Is Networking Important?
2. Where on Earth Do You Start?
3. How to Reach Out
4. Where Do You Find Networking Events?
5. Be Proactive and Introduce Yourself
6. You Actually Have to Talk (Though You Don’t Have to Talk to Everyone)
7. Don't Lead With Selling (And Other Don'ts)
8. Bring Some Kind of Promotional Material
9. Be Genuine
10. Be Trustworthy
11. Expand Your Horizons
12. Grab The Opportunities With Both Hands
13. Quality Over Quantity
Why Is Networking Important?
The people with the strongest networks also tend to have the best opportunities available to them. That alone should motivate you to suck it up and start taking real steps to improve your networking skills. The benefits of networking don’t end there, though. Other advantages include:
- Building your confidence — Almost nobody finds it natural or easy to talk to random people and find common ground with them on which to build a relationship. But the more you interact with ‘strangers,’ the more self-assured you become doing it, and the more courage you gain.
- Growing a support network — Developing a network ensures you’re not forced to face the problems of life on your own.
- Being able to help others feels great! — Whether it’s offering advice, presenting feedback, or collaborating with others, helping people feels awesome. Plus, doing so helps to strengthen the relationships you’re cultivating.
- A new perspective — It’s important to surround yourself with individuals of all backgrounds, experiences, and mindsets because if you trap yourself in a bubble, you’ll never grow as a person.
Where on Earth Do You Start?
If you’re new to networking, you might feel quite overwhelmed by the prospect of not knowing how to begin. From in-person events to online meetups, how can you start connecting with people who are often scattered across the world?
Well, you think smaller.
Start by networking with your current contacts first. Whether it’s your group of friends, partner, work colleagues, or social media contacts, networking doesn’t always have to mean trying to build relationships from scratch.
The best way to maximise your existing networks is to start asking other people questions. Some examples are:
- If I could meet only one person in this area, who would you suggest?
- Do you know anyone hiring for jobs in [field]?
- I’m really good at [skill] — do you know anyone who needs this?
Social media circles
- Send out messages on LinkedIn. Even better is sending somebody a voice message. Ask what’s up, talk about some interesting things the person has done, and gradually start forming a relationship.
- Join a Facebook group in your field/niche so you can meet other like-minded people. You’ve probably joined some already, but without taking any further action. Rather than just casually observing, it’s time to start adding your voice to the conversations.
By learning how to nurture the relationships you already have, you’ll build your confidence and level of comfort when interacting with others. And this will be very useful when reaching out to new people, where it will be on you to strike up meaningful conversations.
How to Reach Out
Once you’ve maximised your existing network, it’s time to widen the net.
Reaching out to new people is simple — once you’ve worked up the courage to do it, of course. Whether you’re communicating online or in person, the basics for starting a successful conversation remain the same: be sincere, and don’t ever lead with what you most want or hope to achieve.
People are naturally turned off whenever they receive questions that have little, if anything, to do with their own interests, skills, or concerns. And why wouldn’t they be? What does anybody get from taking time out of their day merely to give others answers?
There’s a better way to reach out to somebody than directly asking them to do something for you. Actually, there are three better ways:
- Provide them with value. Rather than just saying “Hey, I love your work,” why not identify a problem they seem to be facing and then present them with a solution? This will help separate you from others because instead of asking, you’re giving.
- Show them the value of their work. A great way to connect is to let someone know how their work has changed you for the better. Doing so might lead only to a thank you, but it might also open the door for conversations in the future.
- Mix things up by putting the spotlight on a friend. A third way to connect is to push somebody else’s agenda rather than your own. Not only is this quite unique and a really cool thing to do, but it will also inadvertently put the spotlight on you, too.
My friend Michael Thompson goes into great detail in the article below about how to connect with people you admire. He includes a bunch of proven scripts you can use for your own networking efforts:
Where Can You Find Networking Events?
There are many ways to find local and international networking events. These include:
- Meetup.com — One of the most popular websites for locating friendly meetups and networking events.
- Eventbrite — This site lists many different types of events happening near you. It also features a handy “networking” filter in its search function, which you can use to home in on the exact types of events you’re looking for.
- Facebook — No matter your industry, there are people in your field who are on Facebook and looking to network with folks just like you. These groups can serve as a resource you can use to stay informed about upcoming events that are worth attending.
- Localised Social Media — You should follow people, companies, and organisations operating in your locale, keeping an eye on what they post about. Local network events often have many attendees, making it likely that such events will appear on other people’s feeds.
- Organisations — Many cities have organisations set up to provide networking spaces and events. For example, in my city, you can join the Chamber Of Commerce for a small fee. Once registered, you’ll get invited to all kinds of networking activities, including weekly business breakfasts and weekend events.
Keep in mind that networking is variable in terms of both the types of events taking place and the times at which they’re hosted. Try to keep yourself flexible so you don’t miss out on valuable opportunities. You might have to start your day early, finish your work later than usual, or sacrifice your weekend in order to put yourself out there.
On the days you’re not feeling it, remind yourself that you’re only ever one potential meeting away from connecting with somebody who might change your life forever.
Be Proactive and Introduce Yourself
Take a moment to think about who you are, and then think about who you’re trying to network with. Should the other person know who you are? Why should they care about you at all?
If it’s not obvious to others why they need to know you, stop waiting to be approached and start taking action. You need to make yourself known, especially if you’re just starting out in the networking game.
Don’t be the person who stands in the corner refusing to interact with others — nothing good will come of it. You need to be proactive by making the first move.
So, introduce yourself. From an awkward ‘hi’ to a firm handshake, greetings can be simple. If you’re looking for maximum impact, you can try something a bit more inventive. Instead of talking about the networking event, why not share a story that shows a bit of your humanity?
It’s crucial that you show interest in the person you’re speaking with, making it clear that you’re paying attention to what they have to say. Doing so will resonate with the other person and make them feel at ease.
If you’re really stuck for ideas, you can try some (slightly clichéd) icebreakers. For example:
- Lead with the event — Use the event, the group, or the online webinar as your conversation starter. Bring up your favourite point from the lecture or your most interesting takeaway from the talks. This provides a bit of common ground to work with.
- Lead with a personal connection — If you and the person you’re talking to share an acquaintance or friend (LinkedIn is great for determining this), feel free to use this person as a plug to start a conversation. “You know so-and-so, right?”
- Lead with a conversation starter — Although small talk is often seen as one element of the nightmare networking scenario mentioned above, sometimes small talk really is the best way to start a dialogue with someone if no other connection exists. Just try to find something better than the weather to discuss!
Now that you’ve delivered a serve, you need to be prepared for the return volley.
You Actually Have to Talk (But You Don’t Have to Talk to Everyone)
When you ask somebody, “What do you do?”, you can bet your ass that the question is going to be returned. So you better be ready to give your answer.
You can do this by learning your elevator pitch, or, in this case, your ‘networking intro.’ It should clearly explain who you are, what you do, and why you do what you do. You can also angle it by mentioning why you’re at the networking event and what you hope to gain from it.
You have to sell yourself. You need to learn this pitch and, even more importantly, how to say it with confidence.
Avoid overly complicated words, and don’t use acronyms (because other people might not be familiar with them). Keep it simple and memorable. Have your business card or follow-up ready (see point five).
Remember to remain disciplined, though.
Networking isn’t about meeting as many people possible in the time allocated for an event; nor is it about forming thousands of connections on LinkedIn during your first week on the platform. It’s about having real interactions with people — interactions with the potential to lead to something truly beneficial at some point in the future. Don’t rush — take your time to identify who you most want to speak with.
When things just aren’t working, don’t be shy about getting out of dead conversations. We all know what it’s like to be stuck talking about somebody’s kid’s soccer team — yawn! If you’re not feeling the conversation, thank the person for talking with you and then tell them you’re going to continue mingling.
Don’t Lead With Selling (and Other Don’ts)
If you start a conversation with ‘me’, you instantly disengage your audience.
It’s even worse when you lead with your wants. Starting a conversation with “Hey, it would be amazing if you could do this thing for me…” is likely to bring the chat to an abrupt end.
The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself a simple yet powerful question: “What can I do for this person?”
A willingness to collaborate is essential to building trust and establishing strong relationships. When you show people you can offer them real value, and when you make it clear you don’t want anything in return for your efforts, you win. Even if you don’t see the returns right away, you will indeed be repaid eventually.
There are many other don’ts — things not to do — when networking:
- Don’t make yourself look shitty — As much as we wish it weren’t true, appearances matter. You don’t necessarily have to wear a three-piece suit to a networking event, but you definitely shouldn’t turn up in your university varsity hoodie. There’s a happy medium between those two extremes, and you should find it.
- Don’t act shitty — First impressions are everything. Bring your manners when networking— how you act in the room or over the internet dictates very quickly what other people think of you.
- Don’t flaunt your resume — Remember, you’re here to build genuine relationships and to think about what you can do for others. Having your resume on hand screams ‘I’m only here to get a job.’
- Don’t ask others to share your resume for you — It’s your responsibility to hunt for jobs. If somebody asks for your resume without you initially prodding, feel free to give it out.
- Don’t overindulge — Yes, the free drinks are nice, and they help to take the edge off things. But if you overstep the line, you’ll make a giant ass of yourself, and there’s no coming back from that.
- Don’t talk to only one person — You’ve nailed the networking intro and you’ve made a friend — great! However, don’t latch onto them. Don’t use the person as a shield to hide behind for the rest of the event. Leave your details with them and then move onto the next person and the next opportunity to practice your skills.
- Don’t give up — If your early days of networking aren’t leading to many gains, don’t lose hope. It takes a lot of practice — as well as the perfect alignment of the right moment at the right time — to really see the magic of networking.
Bring Some Kind of Promotional Material
Nowadays, people tend to think that business cards and flyers are a crock of shit — just another way the human species is determined to destroy the planet.
It’s true that promotional materials don’t carry the same weight as they used to carry, especially because we millennials have shifted the landscape from paper to online portfolios and branding.
But in networking environments, promotional materials are still a handy asset to have. They help people who meet you to remember you better, and they make it possible for others to draw connections between your name, face, and company. Even today, a well-designed business card catches people’s attention.
Another benefit is that designing high-quality promo materials allows you to show off another skill. When somebody asks, “Where did you get these designed?” and you reply, “I did it myself, cool right?!”, that’s a conversation starter right there.
If you’re seeking inspiration, this great piece hosted on Creative Market is definitely worth reading:
Designing a Brand Identity
One of the most interesting projects that a graphic designer can take on is designing a logo. It can be daunting (and…
If you’re not into designing, there are plenty of ways to get your promotional materials designed for you:
- Moo — Offers a variety of templates as well as card finishes (including recycled cotton).
- Fiverr — Offers the services of freelancers, who can design nearly anything you want.
- Canva — Offers a free business card maker with thousands of templates created by professional designers.
- Go Local — Why not approach someone in your own network? It could lead to a lasting relationship as well as an opportunity to have locally-sourced business materials created.
A great way to build your network is to develop a reputation for being genuine. No one likes ‘fake’ people — those who pretend to be interested in you merely because doing so benefits them somehow.
Always be the real you, especially when you’re trying to connect with someone. Authenticity is crucial for building a relationship founded on the right intentions.
Here are a couple of ways to be more genuine when you act:
- Don’t worry about what you’ll get out of a conversation — Just be you, and let the chit-chat run naturally. Don’t go into situations with hidden agendas, determined to push your wants onto other people. What will be, will be.
- Follow your own path — Don’t try to become something completely different than what you naturally are merely because you’re networking with a new group of people. You might get away with it online, but should you ever meet the other person/people in the offline world, you’ll get found out. Stick to your guns, have your own opinions, and know what journey you’re on. Be proud of your story, and share it confidently.
- Get comfortable in your own skin — Learn to be happy with who you are. Yes, this is much easier said than done. But getting comfortable with yourself provides you with the confidence to just be you, without worrying about what others might think of you.
- Treat everyone with respect — Don’t judge people based on their background, level of expertise, or job title. Accept others for who they are. Everyone has flaws. You need to be able to recognise other people’s faults, put them aside (where appropriate), and give those you meet a fair chance.
Let’s keep this one really simple.
If you promise to follow up with somebody, follow up. If you say you’re going to send an email, send the email. If you’ve agreed to have a Skype session with a new contact, organise the video call. If you said you were going to reach out to a certain person the next time you visit their city, and now you’re in their city, you’d better reach out.
Most conversations never lead to concrete outcomes because people refuse to act upon the promises they’ve made.
So, when you talk the talk, make sure you also walk the walk.
Expand Your Horizons
Networking has long since left the confines of hotel functions and rooms full of people walking around on a funky-looking carpet. These days, a lot of networking activity takes place within online groups and communities comprising of people who bond together over shared goals and beliefs.
A few months back, I was invited to join a Slack group filled with other creatives who work together and support each other’s content. It turns out, somebody had read one of my Medium posts and then decided to reach out to me, thinking I’d make a good fit for the group.
I had been a part of groups like this before, and so I figured it would be the usual outcome. I’d interact with the members for a bit, engage less and less over time, and then disappear altogether.
But things were different this time.
The group was evidently a busy and lively space, and I decided to go in 100%. I stopped letting my fear that I had nothing to offer the group prevent me from contributing, and I made it a habit to chat with the other members. I got involved in group discussions and video calls. I put my work up for feedback, and I left constructive suggestions for others who had shared their own content.
My involvement in this group has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. The members are from all walks of life, and many different levels of experience and success are represented. That’s the benefit of networking. You meet people with different views, perspectives, and talents — all of which can be used to help you create better work that resonates with more people.
Most important of all is the fact that you’re able to make friends with people spread across the globe.
Open yourself up to advice and feedback by taking advantage of the group’s collective knowledge. Don’t confine yourself to a hand-picked support group that offers the same opinions and advice again and again. Doing so is too safe, too restrictive, and, ultimately, to nobody’s real benefit.
Grab the Opportunities With Both Hands
Sometimes, networking can lead to opportunities that strike us as daunting. Maybe it’s a job offer. Maybe it’s a potential new client. Maybe it’s a book deal. These chances really can emerge merely by interacting and developing relationships with the right people in the right circles.
I just attended a writers’ retreat in Barcelona where I developed some true friendships with people who I had previously only known from the internet. This never would have happened if I had shied away from networking.
I admit it — the thought of traveling to another country to meet a bunch of people I had never seen face-to-face before made me feel anxious. A retreat with people I barely knew? What if I was being catfished? Or, maybe my organs were going to be harvested?
In truth, I’d decided very quickly that I wasn’t going to attend when I’d first been offered the chance to participate.
But then I thought, “All these creative people are getting together to come up with amazing business ideas and to create content with the potential to benefit so many of us, and I’m going to miss out just because I’m a little nervous?”
I knew I would’ve been so fucking pissed at myself if I had let my fear prevent me from going to the retreat.
So I committed to attending, and you know what? It was one of the best experiences of my life — honestly. I’ll consider the folks I met at the retreat friends for life.
Here’s the takeaway: don’t let your temporary anxiety cause you to miss out on experiences that might benefit you for the rest of your life. Many people dislike networking because they’re comfortable with their current situations. I understand that. But I can promise you that new opportunities and adventures are out there waiting for you — you just have to embrace the unknown by diving in headfirst.
What do you have to lose?
Quality Over Quantity
Networking is not a numbers game. Many people wrongly believe the size of a network is its defining strength. In this case, size actually doesn’t matter.
On its own, quantity is an irrelevant factor to consider. You could have a personal network of 10,000 people, of whom only 1% engage with you. What’s the point of that?
“If your network is a mile wide and an inch deep, it will never be successful. Instead, your network needs to be both wide and, in places, deep. That is, you need to have a wide set of contacts but some of those need to be connections that go deep.”
— Ivan Misner
Scale back your focus. Make it your objective to create connections that have the potential to facilitate long-lasting mutual benefit. If you do this, the quality of your network will be greatly enhanced.
It’s not about who you know; it’s about how well you know the people you know.
If you’re anything like me, you still find networking very off-putting — regardless of everything you just read. And that’s OK, really.
However, as someone who has forced himself to ‘come out of his shell,’ I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to swallow your pride, push past your anxiety, and genuinely commit to networking with others on a regular basis. It isn’t as clichéd or cringe-inducing as you might think, and it isn’t as difficult as you might fear.
It just takes the courage to start and the dedication to keep going — no matter what.
Remember: a solid network can be a remarkable source of confidence, support, collaboration, and opportunity, which is why it’s definitely worth your time and effort.
So whether it’s global communication via online groups or local chit-chat at a café in your hometown, do your best to network the shit out of yourself and to reap the rewards it might bring you.