It’s a well-known business adage that if you want to climb the ranks, it’s about who you know rather than what you know. While it may seem old-fashioned, there’s more than a little truth to the saying.
Candidates with an employee referral are much more likely to land the job than those who came by the interview in other ways, like via online or in-person applications. When candidates know someone on the inside, they are more likely to receive and accept a job offer.
As much as some may loathe it, it’s undeniable that networking plays a vital role in advancing your career. Not sure how to network? No problem. The good news is that you don’t have to be a seasoned schmooze artist to network effectively. Follow these networking tips to make valuable connections that will serve you in your professional life for years or even decades to come.
How to make lasting networking connections
1. Ask for introductions
If you’re just beginning to learn how to network, the easiest way to get started is through friends, family, and colleagues you already know.
Confide in trusted individuals within your circle and let them know you’re looking to build some new professional connections. Ask them for suggestions on who you might meet with.
To make this easy for your contacts, it helps to give them an idea of what you’re looking for. Are you hoping to learn about a specific career path? Do you want to gain insight into working in a specific city? Want to learn more about a particular company? These great guidelines will help spark ideas for connections from your colleagues.
2. Focus on relationships
Here’s the thing about networking that many people who are bad at it fail to understand: the relationship itself is the goal of networking. Any other results that come of it (job offers, industry intel, etc.) are simply icing on the cake.
Networking aims to expand your professional sphere with the idea that more contacts breed more opportunities. It’s just like building brand awareness for a company; you don’t expect every person who drives past a billboard to buy from the company, but the more people who see it, the greater the chance that more people will buy.
Approach networking the same way to build meaningful, personal connections that will help grow your network.
3. Go in with a plan
We’ve established that it’s best to network without ulterior motives, but you don’t want to dive headfirst without a game plan. That could leave you aimlessly wandering the room, squandering the valuable time you have to build connections.
Before attending a networking event, set some goals and guidelines for yourself. First, think about who you want to connect with. Maybe you want to meet five new people, or perhaps you want to make one new connection in the publishing/marketing/real estate field.
Then, consider the timing of the event. If it’s two hours long, set a goal that you’ll move to a new conversation every 20 minutes. Going in with a basic plan will keep you on track in doing what you’re there to do and help you avoid anxiously watching the clock.
4. Bring a buddy
Formal networking events (think hundreds of people milling about in a ballroom) can be awkward. Bringing a friend along for the ride can make things a little easier. Having a buddy gives you a wingman to springboard into group conversations and gives you a point person to circle back with if your solo conversations hit a lull.
When attending networking events with a buddy, be mindful that instead of behaving like two magnets stuck to each other, you’re acting more like a loose rubber band, each able to branch out in your own direction before returning to the other.
5. Use people’s names
We’ve all been there: you meet someone new, but you’re so caught up in making a good impression that you instantly forget their name. It happens! To help names stick, when you meet someone new, try to repeat their name within a few seconds of learning it.
When someone introduces himself, for example, you might respond, “Nice to meet you, Mike. I’m Sarah.” This will help cement their name in your brain while also making that good first impression you were going for all along.
6. Ask questions, then be a good listener
Not big on small talk? There’s an easy solution: ask a genuine question. Asking someone a thoughtful question about him or herself not only signals your interest but also removes some pressure to keep up with the back-and-forth of small talk.
Once you have someone talking, listen! Active listening will lead to natural, insightful responses and is a much easier way to have a genuine conversation than simply thinking about what you’ll say next while the other person is talking.
7. Focus on how you can help
Networking becomes much easier when you shift the focus from helping yourself to helping others. In each interaction, ask yourself, “How can I help this person?”
This doesn’t necessarily mean giving out free services (although networking can be a way to find mutually beneficial trade arrangements). As we mentioned in tip #6, it means actively listening and keeping your eyes open for opportunities where you can offer helpful advice, extend a professional favor, or make a beneficial connection with someone you know.
This strategy goes beyond simply being a good Samaritan; it’s a concept marketing mogul Gary Vaynerchuk describes as “building emotional capital.” The thinking is that once you’ve extended a courtesy to someone else, you now hold some leverage with that person that may serve you in the future. Plus, it’s a great way to develop a reputation in your field as someone who finds solutions.
8. Have your business card ready
Business cards aren’t dead yet. They’re still the fastest and most straightforward way to give and receive contact info in a fast-paced networking atmosphere. Even if you only break them out a couple of times a year for networking purposes, having a stockpile of business cards in your wallet or purse is a good idea.
One bonus use for business cards? Pulling one out and saying, “It was great talking with you. Let’s keep in touch” is a neat way to wrap up a conversation that’s drawing to a close.
9. Stay in touch
Networking doesn’t end when the conversation is over. In fact, the initial connection is only the beginning. After you meet a new contact, follow up with a friendly email to thank them for the conversation. It’s a great idea to mention a thing or two you talked about to jog their memory of who you are, especially if it was a big event.
Then, keep the line of communication open by staying in touch. You might send an email every few months to ask what new projects they’re working on or meet for coffee a couple of times a year. Remember, it’s about the relationship and not what you get out of it, so every conversation doesn’t need to be transactional.
Networking isn’t limited to scheduled events. The best networking doesn’t feel like “networking” at all—it’s just a conversation.
Diversify your professional circle by meeting new people outside industry events. Involving volunteer groups, hobbies, rec sports leagues, religious institutions, and community activism are great ways to meet new people and expand your network.
Like practically everything, learning how to network gets easier with practice. At least once per quarter, aim to attend an event that will give you a chance to implement these networking tips. With time, what feels awkward will come naturally and can pay big dividends for your career.