As your career evolves with new job titles, different companies, and changing responsibilities, there’s one source of steadfast support: the people you meet along the way. According to a survey done by LinkedIn, 80 percent of professionals consider professional networking to be important to career success. In fact, of the survey respondents, 70 percent were hired at a company where they had a connection.
From junior professionals looking for career advancement, to managers and directors hoping to recruit talent and boost knowledge, networking is a way to unlock opportunities and forge lasting relationships. It’s also an essential tool for growing a business—especially for budding startups and entrepreneurs who need to gain exposure for their brand, secure new business, establish partnerships, or even seek out investment.
Making new connections and networking effectively isn’t always easy, though. Finding the right opportunities—and then turning your introductions into actual relationships—can be a challenge. These tips will teach you how to network and make the process less painful.
How to network: 13 strategies to make a better first impression
When you’re meeting someone for the first time, that person will form an impression of you within seven seconds of the first handshake. And those initial feelings are hard to reverse, so you want them to be good ones. Try these tips to put your best foot forward from the outset.
1. Set your intentions
There are a few factors to consider before diving into the world of professional networking. First, consider your objectives, or how you would define your reason for networking. Are you looking for new business? Exploring job opportunities? Seeking investment? Also consider who you want to connect with. Are you seeking out experts in a specific field, or are you hoping to meet employees at a particular type of company?
Clear goals and a vision for the relationships you’d like to establish will make it easier to network with purpose. And, after establishing what you hope to accomplish, it will be easier to determine the best events to meet your needs.
2. Choose networking events wisely
When scoping out potential business networking events, consider whether they cater to the industries and job roles that you hope to interact with. For example, if you want to meet decision makers, look for events targeted toward executives.
Also keep your personality in mind when choosing an event, so that you can be your best self. If you’re an introvert, for example, structured or more intimate events might be better suited to you. Or if you don’t drink, you may want to avoid happy hour meetups.
3. Create a game plan
If you can find out who will be at your chosen event beforehand, do some research into attendees and the companies they work for, and come up with a game plan for who you want to meet. Prepare questions ahead of time to ensure that you’ll have meaningful conversations with your chosen targets.
And don’t underestimate the genuine power of personal anecdotes. “Always prepare some stories to share,” says Daniela Campos, cofounder and COO at TrustFeed and a member at WeWork Labs at WeWork T8 in Frankfurt. “People love stories. Stories make [networking] more natural.”
4. Don’t be intimidated by titles
You obviously want to find the right connections for your networking goals, but don’t make your target too narrow. You may want to meet decision makers, but top-down influence is important too. A conversation with the CEO of a company could help drive a sale as much as one with a director.
Sergio Reyes, cofounder of 5roots and a Labs member at WeWork Reforma 26 in Mexico, cautions against being intimidated by big titles—whether you’re networking in person or online. “Just reach out to people,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if someone is really, really successful. If you send them a good message, there’s a high probability that they’ll answer.”
5. Keep an open mind about everyone you meet
It’s also important to give every interaction a chance, even if it’s not readily apparent that the connection can benefit you. For example, Nadav Bahat, cofounder of Urbanize and a Labs member at WeWork Derech Ha’atzmaut in Haifa, Israel, was offered a connection with someone he didn’t immediately think would be able to impact his business.
But the introduction turned out to be gold; after an engaging conversation, she was able to generate several connections for Bahat that even resulted in customer leads. “If a third person sees a definite connection between you and someone else, and you don’t see the connection at first, you should still take the introduction,” he advises.
Go into a networking opportunity with targets and goals, but don’t make your focus so narrow that you miss out on a great opportunity.
6. Repeat the person’s name
There are two times you should definitely say someone’s name when networking:
- When you first meet them: “Nice to meet you, so-and-so.”
- When you’re introducing them to someone else: “This is so-and-so. She works at x company.”
Don’t limit yourself to just these instances, though. Pepper your partner’s name into conversation in a way that feels organic. It will help you to establish a deeper connection, and as an added bonus, it will help you to remember their name if you bump into them later.
7. Be positive and avoid dicey topics
You and the person you’re talking to may both hate networking events, but you want to avoid negativity during interactions, so it’s best to keep the focus on positive topics. You can connect on a personal—and perhaps more memorable—level as well by discussing non-business topics, but make sure to avoid potentially sensitive subjects like politics and religion.
8. Pay attention to body language
Body language is important when you’re meeting someone for the first time. You want to project openness, which means maintaining good eye contact, nodding at appropriate times, and standing with your arms open. Avoid folding your arms, yawning, or leaning on things, as these behaviors can make you seem bored or disinterested.
Pay attention to the body language of the person you’re speaking to as well. If they seem like they’d rather be elsewhere, gracefully exit the conversation. Starting a conversation with someone new is a better use of time than trying to turn a bad one around.
9. Be a good listener
Your body language is important for projecting openness, but so is your behavior. People like to talk about themselves, but most important, they want to talk about themselves to people who are interested in what they have to say. Ask thoughtful questions and let the other person answer, then ask follow-up questions. And show you were listening by adding to the conversation rather than refocusing it on yourself.
Use the 70/30 rule of conversation, and try to do only 30 percent of the talking while networking. And keep your phone tucked safely away during conversations to avoid distractions.
10. Explain what you do
Simply giving out your title and company doesn’t give people an opening to connect; tell them what you actually do instead. For example, instead of saying “I’m the HR director for X company,” say, “I recruit talent and create employee engagement programs for X company.”
Preparing a short statement that describes your role gives the other person an opportunity to find common ground and ask follow-up questions.
11. Be generous
If you can find a way to help the person you are talking to, it will give you an opportunity to form a real relationship. It could be as simple as sharing an article you read that would provide insight into a problem they’re facing, or you could offer to introduce them to someone who could help their business. Being helpful will leave the person you’re speaking to with a positive impression of you, and give you a good reason to follow up.
12. Follow up with your new connections
Many people will send quick notes after meeting someone just to say “nice to meet you,” but Campos cautions against that approach.
“It’s nice to get a connection from a conversation, but [in] the end, you need a reason to follow up with new contacts,” she says. “Do research on people beforehand and ask smart questions while you’re speaking with them to figure out what you could follow up with them about.”
Make your follow-ups meaningful and use them to generate conversation that’s more in-depth than “nice to meet you, too.” If you mentioned an article or book to someone you were talking to, send them the link and ask to hear their thoughts on it. If you offered to do something for a new connection, make sure you do it in a timely manner.
For the connections that are important to your goals, stay in touch with them, but make sure you have a good reason to do so.
13. Network everywhere
Find the right business networking events, but also open your eyes to the opportunities that are available to you in your day-to-day life.
“Say hello to everyone, every day,” says Fardi Mohamed, managing director of SYS Visual and a Labs member at WeWork 70 Wilson St in London. “Saying hello doesn’t cost you anything, and it can start a conversation about what you’re working on.”
Strike up conversations with people in the coffee line or in your office building, or, if you’re in a coworking space, with other companies that share your office. You never know which relationships could help you and your business down the road—and in fact, this possibility for connection is one of the biggest benefits to a coworking space.
The best way to network effectively is to tap your own community
While it’s important to make new connections to further your professional and business goals, nurturing the ones you have is even more important. Your existing network could be the source of your next job, partner, or customer.
WeWork’s coworking spaces are all about building community. With regular business networking events and the opportunity to connect with other professionals and companies through the Member Network, members are never far away from their next opportunity.
Interested in learning more about our community of early-stage startups? Check out WeWork Labs to learn more about our global platform for forward-thinking companies.
Jessica Hulett is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketing specialist based in Ossining, NY. She has previously written for Cosmopolitan, Real Simple, DealNews, and more.