You've probably heard the phrase "It's not what you know, it's who you know." In today's interconnected society, that rings true more than ever. Your talents, abilities, and experience will never take you anywhere if nobody knows you exist. In order to get what you want out of life, you need to be resourceful. Your fellow human beings are a vast resource.
1. Break your stereotypes about networking. If you're reading this article, you're probably familiar with the benefits of networking, but you've avoided doing it for a variety of reasons.
• Networking can seem insincere, pretentious, or even manipulative. And if that's what you're thinking, you're probably right... about some of it. There will always be people who judge others based on image and titles, but there are also people who want to build genuine, mutually beneficial relationships.
When you're networking, you're going to have to sift through the people you don't want to know to get to the people you do want to know. That's just an essential part of networking, but the good news is that with practice, you'll get better at spotting the people worth knowing.
• You might think you're too shy or self-conscious to schmooze. Networking does require a degree of boldness, but with the advent of social networking sites, you can get to find others with similar interests and goals without being in a room full of people.
Also, people who are shy and self-conscious tend to be a lot more open and talkative when they're doing or talking about something they're deeply interested in. If you find people who are just as obsessed with birding, origami, or manga as you are, then you'll have a much easier time establishing connections.
• Networking takes time and effort. Unless you're an extroverted person who thoroughly enjoys schmoozing, it can be exhausting. Why bother? Well, one way to think of it is to imagine how much time and frustration you would save if anything you wanted or needed was just one or two phone calls away. Ultimately, a network can be an investment, with benefits that outweigh the costs. You just need to stick with it and watch it grow.
2. Build your social network. If you hate small talk, this will be the hardest part, but you'll improve with practice. The key is to smile and take a genuine interest in other people's lives.
• Strengthen your existing connections. Getting in touch with old friends, distant relatives, and people you went to school with can be a good stepping stone because you're reaching out, but you're not approaching complete strangers. Give them a phone call or send them an e-mail to find out where they are and what they're doing. Tell them what you're up to.
• Pursue interests and activities that mean a lot to you. The Internet has made this a whole lot easier. Check forums, listings, classifieds, and Internet mailing lists (known as "listservs") for local events or meetings that are likely to attract people with similar interests or passions.
• Go to work-related conferences. Print out business cards and give out as many as you can. Ask the people you meet for their business cards, and write any details about them on the back once you have a moment to spare.
3. Find out who knows whom. When you're talking to people, find out what they do for a living and for fun, as well as what their spouse or significant other, nearby family members, and close friends do for work and recreation, too. It may be helpful to make note of this in your address book so you don't lose track of who does what.
• Example: You meet Mary at a book club meeting and you find out that her cousin is an expert windsurfer. A few months later, your niece reveals to you that one of her life's goals is to go windsurfing. Instead of scratching your head and thinking "I know somebody mentioned windsurfing recently but I can't remember who..." you look at your address book, find "windsurfing cousin" written next to Mary's name, call her up and ask her if her cousin is available to give your niece a private lesson, that you want to give that to her as a birthday gift. Mary says "Sure!" and convinces her cousin to give you a discount. Your niece is thrilled. A month later, your car breaks down, and you remember that your niece's boyfriend is an aspiring auto mechanic...
• Find the extroverts. As you continue to network, you'll find that some people are much better at it than you are - they already know everyone! You'll stand to benefit from getting to know such people first because they can introduce you to others who share your interests or goals. In other words, if you're an introvert, find an extrovert who can "set you up".
4. Invite people out. Going out for lunch, beer, drinks, or coffee is usually good for catching up casually. You can also invite people to do things related to your interests. If you met someone at a caving club, why don't you ask them to check out a new cave with you? The objective here is to establish a connection beyond your initial meeting. Preferably, this should be one-on-one.
5. Be generous. Since you're looking to create mutually beneficial relationships, a good way to kick start this is by thinking of ways in which you can help others. It's not all about contacts, job offers, and loans; you can offer compliments, good listening skills, and other less tangible (but valuable) gestures of kindness and generosity. As long as you're sincere, you're establishing good relations with people and opening channels for mutual benefit. The girl who was crying on your shoulder last month might get you the job of your dreams next month. You never know, so place your bets on good karma. What goes around, comes around.
6. Follow up. Don't get someone's business card or e-mail address and forget about it. Find a way to stay in touch. Maintain your network. Whenever you find an article that might be of interest to them, for instance, send it on their way. If you hear about a negative event (a tornado, a riot, an electrical blackout) that happened in their vicinity, call them and make sure they're fine. Keep track of everyone's birthday and mark them on a calendar; be sure to send birthday cards to everyone you know, along with a nice note to let them know you haven't forgotten about them, and that you don't want them to forget about you.
7. Tap into your network. The next time you need something (a job, a date, a hiking partner) cast a wide net and see what happens. Make a few phone calls or send out an e-mail describing your situation in a friendly tone: "Hey, I'm in a bit of a pinch. I have these concert tickets for Saturday and I haven't been able to find someone to go with me. Since this is a band I love, I'd like to go with someone I know I'll have fun with. Do you know of anyone who might enjoy it with me?"
• Don't ever apologize when asking for a favor or help. It can signal a lack of confidence and professionalism. There's nothing to be sorry about - you're just seeing if anyone happens to be in a position to help you; you're not making demands, or forcing people to do anything that they don't want to do.
• Start small. Don't sign up for 12 meetings in one month. A sustained effort over the long run is better than making a one-time big effort and then burning out. Remember that networking requires maintenance, so don't bite off more than you can chew.
• It always helps to look approachable and be charming.
• Can't find a local club or group relating to your interests or career? Start one!
• You can make great contacts with politicians and their aides by volunteering in an election or being involved with their party outside of election time.
• If you've never networked, it'll be hard at first. Very hard. But over time, it'll get easier. Eventually you'll learn how to start a conversation with a complete stranger in a way that feels comfortable and acceptable to you.
• Watch out for parasites - people who'll pump you for favors and never try to help you in return. When you find one attached to you (and if you're generous, you will) turn them down as politely as you can: "No, I'm sorry, I can't do that tomorrow. I've got plans." If they try to make you feel guilty, feign an excuse to get out of the conversation and make yourself scarce to them. Don't lose your temper or act cold because that'll give them something negative to say about you when they're talking to others, like "Oh, yes I know James, he once called me a leech..." - don't let this happen to you.
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