The Guide To Un-Awkward Networking

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
It takes a certain kind of person enjoys networking — and I mean that in the best way. Being good at it requires lacking enough self-consciousness to get out there and talk to people, but having enough self-awareness to make the experience a positive one for the other party as well. You don't want the interaction to feel transactional, but you don't want to waste your time, or someone else's, either.
The process can be a little terrifying if you tend to be a wallflower. Still, it's incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible, to move along without insight, support, and collaboration from others in your industry: Your career can't grow in a vacuum.
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If networking gives you any kind of anxiety, or you're just looking for ways to improve those moments, start by reframing how you think of it.
"I've always approached networking as barely indistinct from just being a person in the world," says Anastasia Alt, the founder of career services platform Dream Space.
Seeing the other person as just another person is probably a good start! Remembering that they may be just as nervous to meet you, as you are to talk to them, can take some of the pressure off. After that, the rest is a matter of being as thoughtful and strategic as you would be otherwise. Here's the step-by-step guide to make networking really work for you — even if it's not your favorite thing.
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Do Your Homework

Before you go to a networking event or request to speak with someone, you want to do your best to ensure that you know what you want to talk about. Again, this is a conversation — so, as much as you're hoping to get something out of it, a fair exchange means that you have to have something interesting to bring up, too.

When she's actively trying to make a new contact, Alt says that she reads the same literature they might be reading — books, magazines, journal publications — so that she can make conversation in a natural way. You definitely want to be informed, however, she adds that you don't need to be a savant to network. After all, one of your aims of networking to learn new things. Plus, you likely have plenty of knowledge in an area that someone else doesn't, making you just as interesting.

"I think that leads to people feeling like, Oh, I'm not prepared, so I'm not going to go that industry event, but that isn't a great strategy either. Anything you can do to read up on the news or to know more about the area is a healthy thing," Alt says. "I think it's also a good thing to pay attention to what you're naturally reading, what you're naturally knowledgeable about, and what you're reading on your lunch break when no one else is looking. That can guide you to events and communities where those conversations are happening organically, so it doesn't feel like work."
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Know Your Style

You might be painfully shy, the life of the party, the unapologetic fact-dropper, or engaged but silent. All of those personalities can work to your benefit if you're mindful of the other person. Being relentlessly extroverted isn't the only way to get networking done.

"The extroverted person may go to a large event and speak with 20 people and develop lots of loose ties, while the introverted person goes to the same event, hangs to the sides a bit, and finds ways to have those one-to-one conversations," Alt says. "Maybe you go and only have three conversations versus 20, but they're deeper, richer, and they reflect your personal and professional style."

Neither is wrong, she explains, but playing to your strengths and personality is key to actually getting it done without turning around in fear. As you go through the process, you'll likely become more comfortable with it.
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Create A Script

Thinking through what you might want to say at a networking event isn't a matter of memorizing a script and then shouting it at every person you meet. However, when you have a limited amount of time to make a good impression and get to know someone else, you do want to hit a few key points.

"I don't directly ask people what they do because I find that question places people on their defenses," Alt says. "If I'm at an event, I ask, What brought you to the event? What do you find interesting about HR? or, What do you find interesting about the topic of the discussion? It puts them in the most comfortable light, and I think is a really powerful to start a conversation and change the tone instantly."

"Many people are shy and not-so outgoing. They do fine on email, but not so [well] when it comes to connecting in person," says Bevy Smith, the host of "Bevelations" on Radio Andy at SiriusXM, and a contributor to the upcoming show Page Six TV. "My advice is to not try so hard. No one wants a person auditioning for them in the middle of a party."

Like Alt, she advises that in any interaction, you start a conversation based on the event that you're attending, ask what connection the other person has to the organization, and then discuss your own connection. If you're hobnobbing with someone who makes you feel a little star struck, do the same thing.

"Each year I go out to Los Angeles for Academy Awards season, and I often meet folks I admire," Smith says. "Now, many folks would go to these events armed with cards, but I take a different approach: I'm armed with great conversation and the spirit of a researcher. If you are really an admirer of someone’s work, don’t waste the time being a 'fangirl' when you meet them — dig a little deeper." Compliment them on accomplishments that may not be as well known, for a start. "Everyone has a passion project that they want to be acknowledged for," Smith explains.

People will also often fall back on talking about themselves, so ask what projects they're working on and are excited about, or why the event is important to them.

"This is the long game — you’re not going to have one conversation with Oprah and get her number. However, I’m bound to see the same people the entire awards season so I'm in no rush to get their number," Smith says. "By the third or fourth encounter in a week, usually they will say hi, often stopping to chat. The payoff happens when you hear the magic words, We should stay in touch, what’s your info?"

And with that — as with any relationship, which doesn't happen overnight — you’ve created a solid connection.
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Keep Your Cool

Again, basic networking advice still holds true when you're speaking to one of the people you admire most in your field, or even the world. The rise of social media has made it easier than ever to have direct contact with people who are important, famous, and intimidating (however you define any of those traits). Remember, however, that celebrities and the people you admire are people, too! They might not have as much time to shoot the breeze, but they're likely looking to make genuine connections as well. Don't make assumptions about who they are.

"One of the things I can appreciate about my own digital life, and that I've observed in others and heard them share, is that we put forward a persona online. We curate our LinkedIn profile, our Facebook profile, our Instagram, whatever it may be — and it isn't a complete representation of who we are," Alt says. "We tend to share more fully and more vulnerably when we're in person with someone than online. Giving someone the opportunity to share in the same way, I think, is very powerful."

Instead of asking that person to sign something, or gushing nonstop, be a little more thoughtful. You can offer your take on an industry, your opinion, and engage them in a conversation, Alt suggests. You might have read or admired the work that they've done, but you haven't been able to speak with them about it directly, so use this as an opportunity to do so.

"If someone is sharing something you're familiar with, you can say, 'Yeah, I'm familiar with the article you wrote on that. When I read it, my opinion was ____', or, 'I would love to learn more the part of the article where you talked about ____.'"
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Follow Up

Networking can be an enlightening exercise in and of itself, but if you really want it to move you forward, you have to work to extend the glow.

"I always send an email afterwards saying thanks or following up on whatever we discussed," Alt says. "I love to add as much value as possible to those emails, so I'll include a link to a relevant article, or an offer to connect again at a subsequent event."

She also uses tech to automate some of her networking. One app Alt likes is Mixmax, an app she uses to help her follow-up with people on email after a designated amount of time. That helps eliminate the stress of remembering to check in with someone — especially if they've told you it's okay to do so — without missing an opportunity.
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Keep Doing What You're Already Doing

It's easy to think that it's up to someone else to change your life. They're amazing, you're amazing, and you want to be where they want to be, so what's the hold-up?

Well, to start, their amazingness probably didn't happen overnight, and neither will yours. Following up and staying in touch with networking contacts (who, ideally, turn into acquaintances, mentors, or even friends) is worthwhile — even if there isn't an immediate benefit. The best thing you can do for yourself and them is to keep working so that the foundation of what you want to take off is already there when opportunity strikes.

For example, Smith says she met television host and producer Andy Cohen nine years ago when she auditioned for him. The offer didn't pan out, but she still wanted to grow their relationship — in a real way. So, even though people pushed Smith to ask Cohen out to lunch or for coffee, she held off, genuinely asking herself, Do I have an agenda that would be mutually beneficial, or do I just want to hang out with Andy Cohen?

"I felt that when the time was right, Andy and I would truly connect," Smith says. "In the meantime, every time I accomplished something that I thought would interest him, I sent him an email. I figured that Andy would be impressed that I was a self-starter with a wide range of interests and connections, and he would see that I was consistently working in the pop culture space. Fast-forward to me hosting Fashion Queens on Bravo for three seasons."

Sure, other people you network with can help you — if you're taking some steps on your own.
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