9 Simple Tips for Successful Networking

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How to meet and cultivate new contacts, how to ask for help and how to say thank you -- and feel good about the whole process.

I once worked with a woman who kept two stacks of business cards — each probably 6 inches thick — on the corner of her desk.

Whenever an industry contact was needed, she’d rifle through the cards. Most names she didn’t recall. A few she did, vaguely. Only one or two of the cards had names of people she could easily recall that might prove helpful. The bottom line — the huge stacks of cards was visually impressive but functionally worthless.

Spurred by social media peer pressure, many savvy professionals approach networking as if it’s a race to connect with as many people as possible, no matter how superficially.

“There is a penchant to meet lots and lots of people,” consultant and author Andrew Sobel told Inc. about networking. He underscored that quality of contacts beats quantity in all but rare cases — “Maybe if you’re promoting a nightclub.”

In fact, Sobel’s interviews with hundreds of successful entrepreneurs led him to discover that each believed only a handful of professional relationships — maybe 25 or 30 — had significantly impacted their individual careers.

Like any other social skill, networking has some unwritten rules. While “working the room” and collecting a massive number of business cards is generally a poor idea, so is gluing yourself to one person for an entire event.

So just how do you successfully network? These nine tips will take you far:

1. Relax

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Don’t let the word “networking” make you nervous. Networking is nothing more than meeting people, basically at any gathering. Pros recommend that you think of each person you meet as a friend of a friend. Walk up, introduce yourself by name, and briefly say what you do. When the person shares their name, you have the start of a conversation. Feel like you need a goal? Here’s one from U.S. News & World Report: “Your only mission when meeting a new person is to make him or her feel like he or she is the most important person you’ve met that day.”

2. Stop talking

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Yes, you want to hold up your end of the conversation, but don’t overdo it. Many newbie networkers are so eager to share their stories that they deliver a monologue. The person you meet isn’t your biographer. Don’t share your life story. You are looking to connect, not close a deal. Nothing can set a person off more than aspiring professionals who take no interest in anything beside their own ambitions, notes Forbes. Instead, ask questions that allow the other person to talk about what they do, what they like about it, how they got into it.

3. Listen

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Make it a rule to listen more than you talk. And don’t look over the person’s shoulder for other people to meet. Concentrate on what the person says, ask questions and engage. Take an interest in the other person so they feel valued and likely want to continue the relationship, according to Forbes. “Stop highlighting your accomplishments and start listening instead,” Forbes wrote.

4. Keep in contact

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You don’t want to overwhelm those you enjoyed meeting but you don’t want to disappear either. “These aren’t people you should just send a holiday card to,” consultant and author Sobel said to Inc. “You should be talking two or three times a year. You should know what their interests are and follow up with them around those.”

5. Think of contacts as people, not connections

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It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking what contacts can do for YOU instead of how you might help them. Even successful people can use help at various times. Sobel told Inc. that his brother helped a former CEO of Walmart with some health information. That’s the kind of connection that can develop into a social relationship.

6. Make your requests specific

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If you’re asking a new acquaintance for something, make sure your request is specific and something they could actually deliver on. Instead of asking for someone to keep you in mind if any positions open up — face it, they’re too busy to keep you in mind — ask if you can contact them in a month, after the holidays, or in the new fiscal year to see whether anything new has cropped up. If you have a specific goal in mind — whether you’re hunting for a new job, trying to refine a business idea or trying to figure out where to apply to college — you can always simply ask: “Who do you think should I talk to?” People typically feel good about making an introduction.

7. Don’t drop the ball on referrals

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One major networking mistake is to take contact information and not follow up, workplace expert Hannah Morgan wrote in U.S. News & World Report. Thank the person, take the recommended action and tell your contact what transpired. If a contact offers you a recommendation that you know isn’t useful, politely tell the contact why you won’t take the referral.

8. Take notes

Evgeny Karandaev / Shutterstock.comEvgeny Karandaev / Shutterstock.com

It’s not necessarily going to make sense to take notes when you are conversing (like when you’re standing around with a drink in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres in the other), but soon after you meet a new contact, put a few helpful notes on the back of their business card. What industry are they in? What did you discuss? Did you promise to send something or otherwise follow up?

9. Show gratitude, and be specific

Kunal Mehta / Shutterstock.comKunal Mehta / Shutterstock.com

If you have coffee with someone or even pick their brain during a networking session, thank them. Show gratitude to those who share their time and expertise by sending a quick email. If possible, share how their advice helped you — maybe you got a job or won a contract as a result, or maybe you simply came to understand the marketplace better. It’s nice to hear “thank you” but even nicer to know when advice has paid off for someone. People like to feel their time was not wasted. And, don’t forget, most people really want to help.

What have you learned about successful networking? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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