It’s common knowledge that networking is key to career success, but if you’ve never done it before, it can be intimidating. Here are five reasons not to be afraid:
1. You have nothing to lose by reaching out.
For many, the biggest challenge to networking is sending that first message to ask for a meeting. In reality, when it comes to making the first move, the stakes are pretty low. Find someone whose resume looks interesting, either by scrolling through your 2nd or 3rd degree LinkedIn contacts, or by reading bios on the website of a company you’re interested in working for. Send them a message or an email explaining that you’d like to get coffee and pick their brain. Either the person agrees to talk to you or they don’t. And if they don’t, they are probably just busy. It doesn’t mean that you suck.
2. You have a built-in conversation topic.
Once you’ve set up a meeting, the thought of spending 15 or 30 minutes with a total stranger from the Internet might still be terrifying. Fortunately, you already share an interest with the person you’re about to talk to. The industry they work in is your common ground, so don’t be afraid to stick to it. Even if your background is in a different field, your interest in and questions about their area of expertise will keep the conversation going. It’s the reason you contacted them in the first place, and any professional will appreciate making efficient use of their time. No need for extended small talk to feel out other things you might have in common. If those come up naturally, that’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping a networking meeting direct and focused.
3. People like talking about themselves.
Whether one-on-one over coffee or at a crowded networking event, you can easily get someone talking by asking questions about their personal experience with their job, their company, their career path or their industry. Everyone feels more comfortable talking about things they are familiar with, and what’s more familiar than our own experiences? This great news if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like talking about themselves, because it means you don’t have to say as much. But don’t forget that it’s really important to show that you’re interested in what the other person is saying, and to share enough about yourself to be memorable – otherwise, you risk losing the connection you went there to make.
4. You’re there to learn, not get a job.
If you take the attitude that you are networking to learn more about people and professions, you’ll feel less pressure than if you think about networking as a means to a job. So talk to people at all levels of experience – not just people with hiring power. Young professionals will have insights about the management and company culture that are different from senior executives. People with impressive resumes can be intimidating to reach out to, and are often the busiest, but if you manage to land a spot on their schedule, take advantage of it! Even if the advice isn’t what you hoped to hear, or if you find out the day-to-day isn’t as glamorous as you imagined, you are now better informed than when you started. That information will help you plan your next step – whether that’s asking better questions at your next networking meeting or pursuing another job type altogether.
5. The tools are at your fingertips.
We often think of networking in terms of face-to-face interactions, but with technology at our disposal, networking doesn’t have to happen in person. Set up a phone meeting. Exchange a few emails. Reach out on Twitter. Any of these can be done from your computer, tablet or phone. Most of them can be done from your couch. With so many resources integrated into the devices we use every day, there is no reason to feel like networking is too time-consuming. If you get anxiety every time you log onto LinkedIn, try downloading the app and include networking in your regular social media rotation: tweet, like, network, repeat. These small chunks of time and effort will make the process feel more manageable.
If you’re still not convinced that networking isn’t scary, here is a final reminder: You don’t have to network with strangers! Take half an hour to sit down with a friend and actually talk about their career. Skip the bits about the crazy co-workers. Instead find out what steps they took to get hired at their company. Ask them how they got started in their field. What are their favorite and least favorite things about their work? What’s the most important thing they’ve learned on the job? Once you get comfortable asking these kinds of questions, that next networking event might not seem so daunting.