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It wasn’t long ago that networking meant going to a physical location—an event center, a restaurant/bar, a clubhouse—and hobnobbing with strangers. You made small talk, you asked about others’ expertise, you asked for and handed out business cards.

For some, this experience was energizing and exciting—a chance to meet and mingle with potential clients or collaborators. For others, it was uncomfortable or downright terrifying. Regardless of which camp you fell into, the reality is, networking is changing (and has been for years).

Today, more than ever, our communication happens in a virtual space. We log into meetings on Zoom, Hangouts, or Skype. We send information through email. We chat with co-workers through platforms such as Slack or Discord. As this has become the new normal, so too has networking shifted into a virtual space.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this virtual shift.

One huge advantage is that virtual networking is more accessible for more people. In the past, it was difficult for many groups of people to attend an in-person networking session—parents with small children, people who are unable to drive, those with a demanding work schedule, those who live far from typical networking locations. So, even though we may be sacrificing the “in-person feel,” we open the door for a whole new set of people.

Today, networking may lean more towards online presentations or programs than a “let’s mingle and get to know each other” session. So…how do you get to know others and make valuable connections?

Hopefully, the program monitor will facilitate some icebreaker activities or small group break-out sessions. If that’s the case, be sure to be personable and make yourself memorable. Tell others a quirky fact about yourself or slip in a relevant achievement. You could even wear colorful clothing or accessories to make yourself stand out a bit more.

Another thing you can do during online sessions is to ask thoughtful questions. I am a huge proponent of asking questions, whether they are clarifying questions, questions that expound/expand upon the topic, or questions that invite a dialogue. Being engaged, in general, is always a good idea.

Toward the end of the session, if the monitor hasn’t mentioned anything about exchanging contact information, be sure to (politely) ask about it. You might even ask others for their contact info if you’re in a small break-out session. Don’t force it, but if you’ve established a good connection with others and it seems natural to ask for contact info, go ahead! It doesn’t hurt to ask.

As with any other kind of networking, it’s a good idea to follow up with potential connections afterwards. Add them on LinkedIn and send out an email to anyone who might be a valuable connection. You might even discuss meeting up in the “real world,” or you might plan to attend a similar virtual program together in the future.

The future of networking is virtual, so we might as well learn to adapt and embrace it!

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS® DISCOVERY (AND DEEPER DISCOVERY) LICENSED PRACTITIONER, AND FOUNDER OF UXL. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. 
CHECK OUT MARGARET’S ONLINE LEADERSHIP COURSE. 

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Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay

Many of us have opportunities to meet new people regularly. Whether at a conference, seminar, or simply a gym class, we may be brushing shoulders with others who could prove to be value networking connections. But oftentimes we’re either A) too timid to strike up a meaningful conversation or B) bad about following up or keeping in touch once we do make a new acquaintance.

Let’s change that pattern! It’s time to turn potential alliances into solid connections. Start by following these five steps:

1. Speak Up

So many of us miss opportunities to connect with others because we’re nervous to strike up a conversation with someone new. At a conference or workshop, it’s so much easier to stick with the group of people you already know and not venture outside your comfort zone. It’s also easier to stick your nose in your phone or laptop during breaks, and not bother to seek out new acquaintances.

I challenge you to dip a toe out of your comfort zone and start talking to strangers! It may be intimidating at first, but honestly, what’s the worst that could happen? The other person may not be receptive to your efforts…so, you move on.

2. Ask Good Questions

If you’re attending a business event, you might consider coming up with a few questions ahead of time to ask would-be connections. Go over the day’s agenda, and think of relevant questions you could ask.

Another way to engage new acquaintances is to be genuinely curious about them. Go beyond “What do you do?” Dig deeper and ask questions about their client base or how they became interested in their work in the first place. Or, connect on a more personal level and ask about their background and interests (without being too nosy, of course!). If you’re going to go this route, you probably want to offer something of yourself first. For example, “I’m thrilled about all the book recommendations we’ve been getting at the conference. Do you like to read too?”

Asking questions creates bridges between people. Just make sure you’re mostly asking open-ended questions (not ones that can be answered with yes or no), and you truly listen to the reply. You don’t want to completely miss what someone says because you’re thinking up a response.

Asking questions creates bridges between people.

3. Demonstrate Your Value

When you’re connecting with a professional acquaintance, it’s a good idea to think about how you can help them, instead of focusing on what you can gain. Make it clear that this relationship is a two-way street, and you have valuable skills and services to offer.

4. Connect Within Three Days

Be sure to follow up with new acquaintances within three days, while your interaction is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Send a short email and/or connection request on LinkedIn. You might also give a brief reminder about how you met, saying something like, “It was great talking about data collection methods at the ABC Conference on Thursday. I’d love to continue the conversation sometime…”

5. Create a Follow-Up Schedule

Designate time to follow up with new acquaintances. Set your dates and plug in a calendar reminder to make sure you follow through. Don’t be too pushy, especially if you don’t get a response from your acquaintance, but do make an effort to reach out. Consider framing your message like this:

Hi Rachel,

You crossed my mind the other day because [FILL IN A REASON]. I wanted to reach out and see how you’re doing with your XYZ business. Have you had any more issues with [FILL IN DETAILS]? If you’d like to grab a cup of coffee sometime soon, please let me know. I have some free time at the end of next week.

Take care,
Margaret

You worked hard to make your new acquaintances; don’t let them fall between the cracks! Your connections could prove to be fruitful, both for you and the people you meet.

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When you hear the word “networking,” what comes to mind? Do you see yourself with sweaty palms and anxiety pressing on your chest? Do you picture people wearing phony smiles and handing out business cards like free samples at the grocery store? Do you think about making awkward small talk over a soup and salad lunch?

Networking doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, it shouldn’t be this way. When done properly, networking is all about helping one another and making valuable connections. It isn’t about forcing business cards onto those who aren’t interested in your services. It isn’t about trying to frantically gather as many new connections as possible. It’s about quality interactions that are mutually beneficial.

To overcome your mental barriers, actually enjoy (gasp!) networking, and start making valuable connections, try using the following guidelines at your next event. Who knows, the next person you meet could propel your career, offer important guidance or support, or connect you with yet another person who can help you meet your career goals.

1. Reframe Your Thinking

Give networking a new name! Instead of thinking of it as “networking,” think of it as bridge-building, growing your community, or meeting interesting new people. By reframing the way you think about networking, you can overcome some of the mental obstacles associated with it.

2. Always Aim To Provide Value

Don’t try to sell your services to someone who clearly does not need them. Your goal should be to provide value to other people, to figure out how you might be able to help them. Ask questions to unearth needs and discover whether or not your skillset or offerings align with their requirements.

3. Create A Tagline

Businesses have their own slogans and taglines—McDonalds has “I’m Lovin’ It,” Nike has “Just Do It,” Maybelline has “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s Maybelline.” These are phrases that stick in your head because they’re punchy and give you some sense of the brand’s image and values. Create your own career tagline to describe what you do. It should be straightforward, but memorable. Some examples are:

“I write business content, so you don’t have to”

“I build beautiful websites with personality”

“I make social media marketing easy”

4. Ask Good Questions

A great way to open the floor for a positive interaction is to ask questions. Be genuinely curious about the other person and learn about what they do, their interests, and how you might be able to help them. Ask open-ended questions (typically, questions that start with “How,” “What,” or “Why”) and actively listen to the answers.

Asking questions can help you learn about the other person’s personality and their business needs. It allows you to play off their social cues and lets them drive the conversation. In other words, it’s the perfect tactic for anyone who suffers from networking anxiety!

Showing an interest in others is not only good for building your personal image (others will see you as generous and curious), it’s also a great way to do some detective work. Just don’t forget to tell the other person a little bit about yourself as well!

5. Follow Up

You’ve put in all the legwork to connect with others—don’t let it go to waste! Make a concerted effort to follow up at least a couple times, add your new connection to your email list, and befriend them on LinkedIn. In other words, make yourself present in their sphere. Even if they do not need your services at the moment, they may need them eventually.

Get out there and make this year your best bridge-building year yet! Keep in mind that you’re probably not the only one with networking jitters. Do your best to relax and ask good questions, and you’ll put both yourself and others at ease. You’ve got this!

MARGARET SMITH IS A CAREER COACH, AUTHOR, INSIGHTS®DISCOVERY LICENSED PRACTITIONER, FOUNDER OF UXL, AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE TAG TEAM. SHE HOSTS WORKSHOPS FOR PEOPLE WHO NEED CAREER OR PERSONAL GUIDANCE. YOU CAN VISIT HER WEBSITE AT WWW.YOUEXCELNOW.COM

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