No matter what you do, networking is a fact of life. And whether you're interviewing to land a new gig or making connections to improve your current one, it's something you've got to master. The problems most people run into are twofold:
Not standing out in a crowded playing field. There are only so many cookie cutter elevator pitches and generic LinkedIn requests a person can stand.
Focusing solely on your résumé. As office bars, casual company get-togethers, and the overall importance of work culture become more important, how you connect with colleagues can now blur the line between professional and social lives. Making connections over an IPA can be just as important than showing off in front of your boss in the next staff meeting.
But moving beyond the bullshit “So what do you do?” or "Why do you like working here?" and into a conversation that might spark a genuine connection – and working relationship in the future – is easier said that done. So the question is, how exactly do you make networking more meaningful?
Having an awesome conversation with someone often starts before you even meet them. And no matter who you are and who you’re trying to connect with, you need a solid opener. So if you’re heading to a conference and want to make a point to connect with the keynote speaker, do your research.
Having some background on the person you’re talking to will help prevent you from looking uninformed, but maybe even more importantly, doing a little pre-work can help you go into the conversation with some common ground. Maybe you both played baseball in college – that’s a much more interesting opener than “So, how did you get hooked up with this event?”
If you do end up walking into a situation blind (the great thing about networking is you never know who you could meet), it helps to have an interesting back pocket question so you don’t end up stuttering through something generic. Rather than a standard “What do you do?” try “Can you recommend a good beer?” People are usually up for sharing the things that they genuinely enjoy, whereas talking about their day-to-day yet another time might be a drag.
Once the conversation is flowing, don't lean too heavily on the standard set of business questions. Rather than approach it as a big career opportunity, just approach it as a conversation – you know, like with a human. The last thing you want is to seem like you're following a script.
For casual stuff, you don’t want happy hour turn into a grilling session – you won't gain many points by being a buzzkill. So a lot of your conversation should be about sharing, rather than simply asking questions. Think about it like a relationship: if you want your partner to open up, you typically have to be willing to volunteer a little vulnerability yourself. The same applies to conversation partners. Sharing what you’re excited about and where your passions lie at the moment will probably make whoever you’re speaking with do the same, whether they realize it or not.
The most valuable and interesting connections come from people that actually, you know, like you. And heading into a networking situation, whether it's a conference happy hour or a first-round interview, with a tunnel-visioned objective of getting some tangible career boost out of it often makes you miss the point: you’re trying to connect with another person. Focus on building some common ground and work out how you can scratch each other’s backs later.
Great conversations are founded on great listening skills, and switching on autopilot while your potential connection is talking about what they love about their role is going to kill your shot at having a more meaningful conversation. Listen for specifics. What seems like an offhanded comment about how they were attracted to their company’s web design capabilities could segue nicely into a way to learn more about building your own custom site.
Above all, you really just need to remember what it means to connect with someone – as a person, not just a name on a business card. Get that right, and the rest will follow.