As long as you’re not doing anything illegal, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules of networking, but like any other form of social interaction, a bit of basic etiquette and self-awareness go a long way. If you’re only thinking “what’s in it for me”, you’re likely to come across as insincere and maybe even a bit of a nuisance. Don’t be surprised if your attempts to connect with people are politely declined – or ignored altogether. But approach it in a generous and open spirit and good things should naturally follow. Here are some rules of thumb for effective networking:
- Introduce yourself properly. Online networks have made it easy to blast off a zillion impersonal contact requests in seconds. You may feel like you are ‘networking’, but the chances are you’re actually spamming anyone who doesn’t already know you. Not a great start. When contacting someone for the first time, be sure to tell them clearly and politely who you are and why you are getting in touch – just as you’d do over the phone or in a conference lobby. A bit of basic courtesy shows them you have a genuine reason to get in touch and, ideally, that you know a bit about them already (but not in a stalker-y way).
- Try to offer something in return. There’s a fundamental give-and-take in networking. This takes care of itself if you are engaged in a two-way exchange of ideas. But if you are asking a contact for something – whether that’s information, an introduction to someone else, or ten minutes of their time to chat – show them you are mindful of the fact they are doing you a favour and try to offer them something in future (even if it’s something as simple as a second opinion). Your willingness to help in itself will show you value what they are doing for you and help oil the networking wheels. And if others come to you politely asking for advice, be ready to help them too.
- Manage your expectations. Don't expect too much from your first encounter with a new contact, and avoid coming straight out with unrealistic demands (e.g. “Go on, give us a job… pleeease!”) – this puts them in an awkward position and is unlikely to get a positive reaction. Think in terms of gathering information, rather than asking for something directly. Decide what you want to know – something that doesn’t require too much time and effort on their part, and isn’t too vague. Asking sensible, targeted questions show them you value both their time and personal space.
- Approach contacts in a way you’re comfortable with. Because if you aren’t at ease, they probably won’t be either. Some people are happy to dive in and phone new contacts up straight off the bat. Others prefer to start at the shallow end, making their initial move via online networks, email or even snail mail. Ultimately though, if it’s a key relationship that you want to develop further, it should eventually lead to meeting them in person, or at least a phone conversation (for reasons explained in the pros and cons of online and face-to-face networking).
- Be persistent without being pushy. Some people will be happy to chat, others will be more evasive. If you encounter resistance, know when to let go and move on to the next contact. Networking doesn't always produce immediate results, it's a cumulative process: the more you engage with others, the more you learn and the more like-minded people you get to meet. Be patient and dig in for the long haul.
- Cultivate your contacts. If someone has helped you, follow up with a thank you message. Thereafter, contact them at regular intervals (say, every month or couple of months) to keep the connection alive. If you’re thinking this could feel a bit forced, and don’t feel like you have much to say, online networks can help. They allow you to stay on the radar of people in your network, directly or indirectly, by posting links to items of mutual work-related interest, or commenting on others’ posts. (But be selective, sparing and relevant in what you broadcast – constant updates quickly get intrusive.)