If you’re one of the majority of people for whom the very idea of putting yourself out there has you breaking out in hives, then this article’s for you.
Hate networking? Up until a few years ago, I did too. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get past the ick factor. At one point I even asked a more experienced colleague for some networking advice. I was told ‘never leave an event without having collected at least 10 business cards.’ Needless to say, that didn’t help.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was almost ready to give up, that I had an epiphany which enabled me to get over myself and get comfortable with networking. This ‘aha’ moment was so simple, but it made a huge difference and all it took was a little reframe. Here’s what I mean:
- Reframe what it means to you
Networking suggests something that’s contrived, self-serving and disingenuous, right? Well if that’s the case, no wonder you hate it. Right out of the gates, you need to look at it through a different lens. Remove the perceived pressure to sell or promote yourself and instead focus on making a meaningful connection with another person and on the authenticity of that connection. Think more about building a community of people as opposed to a network comprised of contacts. My networking improved significantly the instant I changed my attitude and was willing to show up a little more vulnerable, as myself.
- Make the right first impression
Like it or not, appearances really do matter. Whether in person or online, people judge you when they first see you. It’s not personal. As humans we’re hardwired to categorize and make assumptions based on visuals so we don’t become overwhelmed with information. This means we have exactly one opportunity to make the right first impression. I asked executive presence coach Katherine Johnson to weigh in on how we can put our best foot forward:
“When it comes to first impressions, the things I see consistently interfering with people’s ability to connect are visual static and a confusing personal brand. Here are several tips to avoid these potential pitfalls:
- Don’t distract others with visual static. You want people to remember you, not what you wore. Skip the statement pieces that overpower you as well as the patterns and clothes that show up ten minutes before you do.
- Don’t hide in plain sight. People often communicate a message that says “don’t see me” by wearing clothes, colors, sizes and styles that render them invisible to everyone around them. Make sure you’re wearing the right size clothes for your current body, colors that naturally frame you, and hair that’s well-groomed and up-to-date. Confidence is conveyed by a self-awareness translated into appearance choices that feel effortless and polished. This helps you stand out and be seen for the right reasons.
- Ask ‘Who do I see first? Me or my clothes?’ Start to train your eye to see yourself differently. Move beyond evaluating the clothes you wear based on “Is it a good outfit?” and really look at how the clothes work to support you. You always want to see yourself first and bring out your natural radiance.
In summary, you’re the masterpiece and your clothing is just the frame. To make the best first impression, focus your attention on framing yourself so that people can easily connect with you and all you have to offer.”
- Ditch the pitch
We’re connecting not selling, right? So ditch the elevator pitch and instead prepare an introduction that makes it easier for others to understand who you are so that they can connect with you. Keep it simple, something along the lines of ‘my background’s in… here’s what I enjoy most… and this is where I’d like to take my career next….’. To avoid getting flustered when introducing yourself, practice several times a day until it’s rolling off the tongue.
- Ask (the right) questions
According to NPR’s leading lady of interviews, Terry Gross, you need only ever lead with four words: “tell me about yourself.” Genius! It’s open-ended, allows the other person to take the conversation where they’re comfortable, and avoids potentially embarrassing situations. Be prepared to ask follow up questions. I like to learn how someone chose or fell into a particular field, and what they enjoy most about it. Talking to a full-time parent? Ask them what they enjoy most about parenting. I guarantee you’ll get a broad range of responses 😉
- Put down the bullhorn
The goal isn’t to broadcast how amazing you are, but you do want to come across as positive and engaged. If you don’t love what you do, then focus instead on something you’re excited about or looking forward to doing next. You can always say you’re at a career crossroads. Bonus points if you articulate your strengths and what you enjoy most, as well as the areas you’re interested in exploring. Give the other person something to work with.
- Take action
If you’ve established a good rapport with someone, then exchange business cards or resolve to connect on Linkedin. Be sure to reach out after the event and send a connection request with a personalized note. Cultivate a relationship.
- Show your community some love
When’s the last time you reached out to someone without an agenda? Start practicing ‘palms up’ networking (instead of the more grabby palms down version). It’s not about what’s in it for you, but instead what you can do for others. Ask how you can help them, make introductions, send helpful articles. Export your contact list from Linkedin and organize it. Reach out to a couple of contacts each week to schedule a virtual or in-person coffee and catch up without an agenda. That’s right, no agenda. In my experience these are often some of the most inspiring and rewarding conversations.
- Ask for help when you need it
I haven’t turned away a single person who approached me respectfully asking: “I’m reaching out to ask for your help but completely understand if you don’t have the time right now. Would you be willing to…”
- Make sure your message is on brand
Complete a brand refresh annually. Just as we evolve, our brands mature. Develop a brand voice/guidelines and ensure your message is consistent and on-brand across ‘all channels’. Going back to Katherine’s advice, don’t confuse your audience. Whether in person or online, you want to be consistent and make it easy for others to see and connect with you.