Just like hearing “we’ve discovered you’re actually three credits short,” “networking” can bring on a pretty visceral reaction for many of us.
The word brings to mind awkward, forced conversations at professional mixers among people covered in nametags, and unsolicited emails that sound vaguely like you’ve been stalking the recipient. Even though we live in an age where brevity is at a premium, we should just get rid of the word “networking” and reframe it as “being simultaneously social, proactive, and professional.”
More than a killer cover letter or being an all-around pleasant guy or gal, keeping in contact with other professionals in your field is what will probably open up the most job opportunities. So, dear young adult, entering the tumultuous process of job searching, with a finger hovering over the send button on your first cold email, here are some words of wisdom to make networking feel more natural and less like an awkward middle school dance.
1. Networking doesn’t always mean sending cold emails.
First off, it would be a mistake to think of networking as exclusively putting yourself out there in ways that make you uncomfortable. Everything from staying active on LinkedIn and Twitter, to getting coffee with a friend in your field might fit under the umbrella.
If you legitimately enjoy their company, staying in contact with professors, past co-workers, and old bosses is one of the best ways to develop and maintain professional connections. Doing these things won’t feel forced because they won’t be forced. Plus, if you send enough professional emails and make enough phone calls, like all things that become habit, they will eventually feel completely normal.
2. You can talk to people like they’re people.
Would you rather be addressed at the beginning of an email with “To whom it may concern” or “Hello”? The recipients on the other end of your professional emails are also people, and like most of us, probably prefer being addressed as if you’re imagining a real person. People generally respond well to being addressed in a friendly, polite manner, and it will make you feel more at ease too. No one wants to be engaged in a robotic exchange, even if it’s considered “professional.”
Sound like you’re starting a conversation, instead of someone who immediately wants something. Make an (entirely inoffensive) joke about the weather or whatever. Of course, always stay professional, but just because you’re contacting someone for professional reasons doesn’t mean she wants to hear words like “distinctive” and “hitherto.” Let her know that you know something about her work and that you’re interested in learning more. Ask if you can meet for coffee, and be prepared with some questions you genuinely want to discuss. Sincerity is key here; people love to talk about what they do, but you have to want to learn.
3. The worst someone can say is “no.”
It’s a cliche, I know. And there are technically worse things people could say, but your chance of getting any kind of nasty response to a professional email is probably about the same as netting $500 on a dollar scratch-off ticket.
If someone has taken time from her schedule to let you know that a position is already filled, or that she really can’t meet for coffee next week, or that she’s not currently looking for new help at the moment, that’s a net positive because at least you’re on their radar. Simply send an appreciative follow-up and let her know that you’ll stay in touch. And then do it after a respectable interval of time.
So really, the worst thing that can happen when sending a networking email is not getting a response, in which case, you can just dust your shoulders off and move on to the next thing.
4. There are no quotas.
You always want to stay professionally active and set goals, but don’t put extreme amounts of pressure on yourself about it. If you’re a super-organized person and telling yourself “I will send 15 networking emails this week” will help you, by all means do it. But if that’s just not how you operate, don’t drive yourself insane trying to work up to some artificial goal that no one else is keeping tabs on.
By simply being proactive about communicating with other like-minded professionals (let’s not call them “contacts,” which is a bit depersonalizing, don’t you think?) as often as you can, you’re already giving yourself a leg up. Even by taking the time to read through this article, you’re moving in the right direction. Congratulations! Also, have you been working out?
5. Most people want to help.
Here’s the thing about doing nice things for other people: it feels good.
It’s the reason people volunteer and hold doors, and society doesn’t slip into a fiery dystopian free-for-all. You might encounter someone who’s too busy to respond or isn’t really in any position to help out, but you have nothing to lose by sending an email or making a phone call. You’ll generally be surprised by how willing people are to extend a hand to someone who takes the time to ask for it. Also, people like being asked for advice or assistance because it reminds them that they are in-the-know and important.
Just make sure that when you become a huge success, you pay it forward.