You’ve heard the saying a million times:
It’s all who you know.
And it’s true. Whenever you’re looking for a job—or building a business—the key to success is having a strong network behind you.
For lots of us, though, networking is annoying, difficult, or downright terrifying. It’s the last thing we want to do, so we do everything we can to avoid it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you’re a total introvert, you can network like a pro—and reap all the benefits of a professional team that has your back.
Here’s how—and why—you need to get into the networking game.
Getting past your fear
First off, let’s deal with the elephant in the room.
Meeting new people can be stressful even at the best of times. But when you’re trying to make a good impression on someone who might hold your future in their hands? That’s barf bag material.
But in order to network, you’ll have to make peace with your fears.
That means, don’t you dare hide behind your “introvert” label.
Psychology Today points out that most people are actually neither truly introverted or extroverted — it’s mostly determined by the situation. Truth be told, there are only a few true extroverts at a networking event. Most people feel nervous and insecure when meeting new people.
True, some people might appear to be more comfortable, but that’s usually because they’ve had more practice than you, and inside they’re still jelly.
Just be yourself, and recognize from the start that you might not impress everyone—but that’s okay. Just having a good conversation with one or two people will make the whole effort worthwhile.
What your network does for you
But why put yourself in this uncomfortable position in the first place? Is networking really that important?
Think about it this way.
If you were to hire someone to cut your lawn, would you be more likely to hire someone off randomly off the Internet, or would you choose someone who has solid reviews on a lawn services website or who was recommended by a number of people on your neighborhood Facebook group?
Having a network means that you’re a known quantity.
You might have recommendations from people on your LinkedIn profile, or people in your field have heard of your work. Maybe your name has come up in a social setting. You might be in the same Facebook groups, or have mutual connections on LinkedIn. Or maybe on your portfolio, you’ve done work for respected companies in the same field.
How to build your network
When someone talks about ‘networking,’ you might imagine trying to make your way through a crowded room of people in suits.
But that’s not the only way networking works.
Okay, sure, there are plenty of happy hours and networking events. Believe it or not, they can actually be a lot of fun. The tech industry, in particular, tends to host a number of informal social events. You might also see larger companies hosting ‘meet and greets’ or open houses. Then there are job fairs hosted by the city or a local chamber of commerce.
All of these events are great to attend. But there are other places to network too.
You might try Toastmasters, small business owners groups, your local Chamber of Commerce, or other organized meetings that speak to your interests. If nothing there tickles your fancy, Meetup.com is a great way to find all kinds of professional and social meetups in your area.
Volunteering totally counts
If you don’t like the cocktail party atmosphere of some networking opportunities, try volunteering. By helping the community, you can simultaneously meet people who can help you further your fortunes.
Regardless of your particular skill, there’s almost always a way to offer what you know to the community. Can you teach? Offer to tutor disadvantaged kids. Do you build websites? Nonprofits will love to have you lend a hand. If you know accounting and bookkeeping, around tax time many libraries and community centers can use your help.
One of the best places to volunteer is at local conferences. You can often get reduced or free admission and get to know people in your industry at the same time. And if you work at the registration table, you’ll meet a bunch of people without even trying!
And here’s another trick. Follow the major employers in your field on Facebook and Twitter. You never know when they might be a sponsor for a community event, and by volunteering at that event (or sometimes, just attending!), you might just get your foot in the door.
Learn and connect at the same time
Professional workshops and continuing education courses can help you build your skills and fill out your resume. But did you ever consider that these classes can also connect you with people who share your interests? If you befriend a few fellow wannabes in your industry, they might remember you later on, and you never know where those connections might lead.
But you don’t have to stop with professional classes. Even taking ‘fun’ activities and classes, such as a gardening class at a local nursery, or joining a book group, can count as networking. You never know when the person next to you painting their ceramic bowl at an art class might know someone hiring people just like you.
And if nothing else, you might make a great new friend.
Organize your own group
It might sound crazy, but if you’re looking to get noticed, there’s no better way than to create an organization around your professional or personal interests.
Build a community group on Facebook, or set up your own group on Meetup.com. Even if there are other groups like your own, no one will bring your own ideas and energy to the table, and you might find people prefer your group to the other ones out there
Even purely social groups will get your name out there, and you never know who you might meet.
How to make the most of networking opportunities
Here are a few handy tricks to make the most of any networking, formal or informal, that will help you make a lasting—and hopefully good—first impression.
- Don’t be pushy. No one likes it when someone else sells themselves or their business to them, especially at a social event.
- Have a tidy elevator speech prepared. This is a very short (two sentences or so) statement of who you are and what you do.
- If the events are specifically career-focused, you can bring your resume in a tidy padfolio. Otherwise make up some inexpensive business cards with your contact information, website/portfolio, and a short but memorable phrase (for example, my handyman’s cards say “I fix everything but broken dreams.”).
- Don’t be afraid to start up a conversation. Yes, it’s awkward to go up to a stranger, but force yourself to do it at least once at every event. After a while, it will come easier to you.
No wingmen allowed
As much as you may want to, you really can’t bring a buddy everywhere you go. When you go to an event—whether it’s a networking meeting or a workshop—if you have a +1, your friend becomes a crutch. Sure, having company makes it easier to walk in the door, but once you’re inside, you’re much more likely to sit and talk with them rather than mingle.
After all, the whole point of networking is to meet new people. While it’s scary to walk into a room full of strangers, going solo gives you the incentive to have conversations with random people.
If you’re new to networking, this whole article is probably a hard sell. Just thinking about putting yourself out there likely has tied knots in your stomach. But stop and think about it: are you okay with never getting the job you want, or allowing your business to stall out? I’m guessing not.
Sometimes you have to face your fears and give the butterflies in your stomach the night off.
So what are you waiting for? Before you lose your courage, go to Facebook or Meetup.com and find an event or a group you would like to try out, or RSVP yes to that invite waiting in your inbox.
And when you go — because you owe it to yourself not to back out! — walk in with a confident smile on your face and see what happens.
Jackie Dana is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist based in St. Louis. Although she has eclectic interests, her focus is on articles designed to help people find their way through an uncertain world. She published her first novel in 2015. In addition to writing, Jackie might be brewing herbal potions or reading a great YA novel. For her latest articles and other tantalizing goodness, be sure to subscribe to her mailing list.