Think back to your first job interview. Preparing talking points to share your professional story and your personal backstory. Succinctly mentioning the skills and issues for which you are most passionate. Then sharing all of this and more with several executives you just met at a place where you very much want to work. It’s scary and exciting at the same time.
Now, think of a similar situation in which you’re trying to “show your stuff,” but this time in a room of professionals in your industry. Maybe you think they all seem more qualified than you? Maybe you think they all appear more confident than you? If yes, you’re looking at it all wrong.
Yes, that second scenario can be daunting. It’s certainly how networking felt to me when I first started doing it as a young professional. I went to a few events believing I didn’t have much to offer, since I was new in my career. Only as I found more networking events about topics that most interested me, I gained more confidence and learned networking is not a real-time test of your qualifications by other professionals. Done right, networking is simply conversations with new people.
If you’re just starting your career, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way with help from my Stratacomm colleagues.
- Remember your networks. Networks exist in real life, too – not just on Facebook! Don’t forget all the relationship building you did before your first job, which for many young professionals is when you were in college. Ashleigh Artist, an account executive in our Detroit office, regularly checks in with her sorority to attend their networking events. A shared connection is an invaluable first step in starting a conversation with someone that can lead to a new business pursuit or other great networking events. Remember when you were a student member of a professional organization? Now is the time to upgrade that membership to professional-status. You’ll open doors for yourself to a number of other events for free or low cost. If you ask them, your colleagues and/or mentors likely will also introduce you to their networks and you can tag along to events with them for introductions.
- Don’t be afraid to go at it alone. Much different than when you went out in college, there is a chance you’re entering one of these events without a group of friends. Don’t let that deter you! Think of the unfamiliar faces in the room as opportunities to test out your elevator speech. At least 30 percent of the crowd will also be there by themselves, and sooner than you think there will be someone at your table or at the drink counter, look at their nametag, tell them your name and ask them to tell you more about their organization. You might even be surprised and see someone you know. No matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen this person, you’re quickly opening yourself to their network by simply reconnecting.
- Listen, ask good questions and remember you’re not there to “sell.” Success at networking isn’t measured by the amount of business cards you collect or the amount you give out. Be prepared to share those basics, but let the focus be on conversations – not on transactions. This is your chance to ask questions, be an active listener and share a little about you and your organization when appropriate. Speakers and panelists are also opportunities for a connection. Share your thoughts with them after a panel or discussion and let them know you appreciated their comments.
- Make a goal for yourself and stick to it. Practice makes perfect, so the more you network, the more natural it will begin to feel. Research suggests it can take 66 days to form a new habit. No matter how big or small – make a goal each day to have a networking touchpoint. As a young professional this could be as simple as reaching out to former classmates or connecting on LinkedIn to someone you recently met. Jessie LeTarte, another Stratacomm account executive, notes that keeping in touch with people at the same level as you professionally can be extremely valuable, not only in expanding your network, but also as a sounding board for some of the key decisions and experiences that come up in the early stages of your career.
Before starting the process, networking can seem like a downright scary task. But leveraging existing networks and professional organizations to help you identify new opportunities to meet people and setting some goals that you can hold yourself accountable can make it easier. Ultimately, networking should become more deliberate than accidental … and even more rewarding in the end!
Nicole Golvala is an account executive in Stratacomm’s Washington, D.C. office. Wondering how else to succeed as a young professional in PR? Check out Nicole’s other blog post with four tips to succeed in your first year.