Networking Best Practices - Making Networking Events Easier
Does the thought of networking bring out the butterflies? Does getting an invitation to attend a Meetup or other networking event stress you out? The idea of networking often evokes social anxiety, fear, stress, and many other unwelcome thoughts in people. Yet we all know networking is essential for your career and job search and can contribute positively to your life beyond your professional career. How do we make it easier for those who dread the prospect of it?
In 2006, I sat in my car for several minutes, questioning whether I'd attend the .NET User Group meeting. I didn't feel like I belonged there. I didn't know what I'd say to people. I knew the topic and presentation would be way over my head. I doubted I'd know anyone there. It was also after a long workday, and I was exhausted. My co-worker who dragged me with him (thanks, Kenny!) called me to see where I was; he was already inside. I sucked it up, took a couple of deep breaths, gave myself a "you drove here, you will learn something, and you have no choice since Kenny's now expecting you" pep talk, re-summarized the benefits of getting involved that Kenny had shared with me, and walked in the building. I was smiling when I walked out of that same building two hours later with several new pieces of information and a handful of new connections who were extremely friendly, open, and helpful. Fast forward about 17 years later, and I credit a lot of my career success, incredible friendships, higher level programming knowledge, and rewarding technology community initiatives (I've now co-founded three technology Meetup groups that benefit nonprofits) to walking through that door and not looking back!
As a very reluctant networker in my early professional life (circa 2006-2009 especially) and someone who still experiences those networking butterflies before and often early on at an event, here are some networking hacks that worked for me, combined with tips from other individuals in my network and community who have experienced hesitancy around networking.
Walking into any event with positive outcomes in mind makes a world of difference. Even on your drive there, consider "What are the silver linings of networking? What will I potentially get out of it? How will it help me with my current career and job search goals?"Expect positive results and re-live any previous positive networking experiences!
One big way to make an event more comfortable is to attend with someone you already have a level of comfort with who has shared goals. Inviting a friend, coworker, job seeker, etc., is a great idea; ensure that you don't talk to just them the whole time! Give each other a goal of talking to one new person, and then reconvene to discuss your conversations.
Give Yourself Goals
Outlining specific goals for scoping out and joining relevant groups and then goals for attending an event can ease the butterflies and help hold yourself accountable. Here are some common goals we recommend for first-time tech event attendees:
- Identify three groups you'd like to check out.
- Attend one event a month (add it to your calendar).
- Recruit at least one person to attend with you.
- Talk to 1-2 new people at the event (start small!).
Once you've become more of an active member, we also encourage the goal of finding a way to contribute/volunteer back to that group at least one hour a quarter/year.
Find the Right Groups
I like to follow the "three strikes, and you're out" approach with a group. I attend three meetings they host before reflecting on and determining, "Is this the right group for me? Do they host events that are relevant to me? Do I feel comfortable?" If I don't feel comfortable, what can I do to make myself comfortable? Not every group is one size fits all, so find what works best for you. Additionally, don't write off a group after the first event since every event is different, and each offers a unique opportunity.
Communicate You're Going
Communicating that you're going to an event at work, on LinkedIn, to a friend, etc., helps hold you accountable. Also, you might find that communicating your intentions to go might encourage other individuals to attend! Another potentially surprising benefit affects your brand/reputation. When you share your involvement with tech groups, it shows interest in that technology, dedication to learning/growth, people skills, and other skills employers look for, which can give you a leg up in any job search!
What are three (or more) questions you can ask people who might be going? Have a few questions relevant to the topic, the area, etc. Also, ensure you have copies of your resume and potentially a business card if pertinent to your area of expertise. Ensure your LinkedIn profile is current to connect with people in real-time at the event. Before attending, identify and practice your "professional elevator pitch"/value proposition.
Develop a Pre-Event Routine
Before an event, I try to go for a 15-30 minute walk to uplifting music. One of my co-workers has a ‘Pump Me Up' playlist she created specifically for an hour before a big event. Expelling energy before a networking event is a great way to eliminate the nervousness we often feel!
Identify a recent networking event you went to that went well. Take a few minutes, close your eyes, and re-live that experience. Walk through how the event went in your head and re-experience the positive moments during the event and reflect on any positive outcomes after the event.
Are you new to the area? New to the technology/concept? Most people, especially technologists, get excited to help with problems so that you can ask for advice. "I'm new to the concept of Machine Learning. Is that a topic you're interested in? Where have you learned about it? Are you working on any ML projects?"
Actively Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Take a breath, walk up to someone, introduce yourself, and ask questions. I still find that the first couple of minutes might be awkward, but then it's usually smooth sailing. It could be as simple as "Hi, I'm Erica. I've never attended a meeting for this group, although I've attended several meetings for the ___ and ___ groups. I was excited about tonight's panel on ____! Have you attended this group/event before?"This is a great icebreaker and a way to start a conversation with a stranger!
Be Consistent with Attending
It's stressful every time I attend a new group. But then I get to know some of the members of that group and start building relationships, and my comfort level grows with time. By the third or fourth meeting for that group, I've found that I'm in a much different place and less apprehensive about attending.
Contribute Ideas to the Group
Not comfortable, and you feel like others are too? Then make a suggestion! For one of my groups, I suggested to the main group organizer that we add an icebreaker question to the name tags she put together since we were starting to see new people come out, and some didn't seem comfortable mingling. We had about 10 interesting icebreaker questions on the name tags, such as "Ask me about my favorite invention from the last five years" or "Ask me which city I'm most excited to travel to." It helped break the ice, and people were excited to discuss some of their favorite things! Again, much like anything in life and with work, bring an idea/suggestion to the table to make an event better or more comfortable for you and others!
Take Contributions to the Next Level by Helping/Volunteering
The most significant thing that helped me feel part of the group was when I started contributing to it. After I had attended a few events, I asked one of the organizers what I could do to help. They said they'd love someone to grab some pictures. Then I started helping with registration and checking people in. I also helped with food set-up and clean-up early on. After the first year or two of doing small tasks, I took on more responsibility by organizing events, including helping to recruit speakers and volunteers. Consider small jobs you see that might be helpful and offer those up. Also, think about any skills you might want to develop and find a way to offer help in an area that cultivates those. For example, if you want to practice your public speaking skills, you could ask to introduce the speakers going forward.
Don't Forget to Leverage the Benefits
The perks of getting involved with a tech group are more than most people realize, so think about how you could communicate what you've done! Add your involvement to your resume, LinkedIn profile, online portfolio, etc. This can be a significant commonality or talking point with future contacts/hiring professionals! Ensure you are also connected to their social channels, so you can easily share content, upcoming meetings, comment on interesting posts, etc.
To get involved with networking, we suggest the following:
- Make a list of the core skills, concepts, or technologies you want to invest time in finding and joining a group for
- Join Meetup.com and put in your interests so you get notified of relevant groups
- Invest 30+ minutes researching and prospecting groups, even using tools such as ChatGPT to identify local groups that align with your interests
- Find someone in your network who may be interested in networking and skills development, and plan time to talk through goals, potential groups, and next steps
- Find an event to attend in the next 30-90 days
- Make a goal to attend one (or more) events a month, consistently
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Article Last Updated: 2023-07-07