Networking — it’s a word that makes most of us cringe. Sure, there are those amazing types who seem to waltz in and out of group gatherings and conference presentations without a care in the world — but let’s face it, they’re the outliers. So how do we approach networking if it’s something we’re not really into (or worse, dread)? Should we even have to do it, at all? (The answer is no.) Should we do it? (Yes, probably.) When should we do it? (When we’re not desperately needing something from someone else, ie: relationships should be built and strong before you need to ask for a favor.)
In my years of juggling a handmade business and freelance gigs, I’ve learned a thing or two about networking. Here are my tips for making the most out of networking events:
Half of life is just showing up. Or maybe it’s 90%. Either way, you get the picture. I am a homebody. Hygge is my preferred state of being. Which is all to say, that by 7PM on a Tuesday night, it’s a tough sell to choose having to be ’on’ over my jammies. If you’re like me, plan ahead with a friend to attend a networking event. That way, you’ll be less likely back out on her/him (or yourself). Accountability is usually the friction that prevents me from talking myself out of something.
It’s also OK to not go. The one great thing about being a grown-up is that we can always say ‘no thanks.’ Really. Embracing networking doesn’t mean you have to deplete yourself by saying yes to everything. Be strategic about where you want to spend your time in a given year. And let yourself off the hook when you can’t (or really don’t want to) show up to an event, guilt-free.
Take the focus off of you. If you’re sweating your elevator speech, focus on the other person by finding out about them. Be curious. Ask questions. This is the single best way to break the ice, get comfortable, and warm up to the idea of ‘pitching’ yourself.
Flip the script. Networking isn’t about what someone can do for you. My only real expectation going into a networking event is keeping myself open and curious enough to find out about an interesting project or person. And if something or someone strikes me, I get my wheels turning – how can I help them?
Open yourself up to surprise. I recently attended an event for local women in business and met a naturopath who confessed to walking her cat on a leash (I think I might have a new character for a picture book, guys), and a woman who spent decades in radio and is now exploring running for a local congress seat. I have no idea if I will re-connect with either of these women again, but I appreciated the unique experiences and career trajectories that they each shared with me (along with their pets’ preferred method of transportation).
These connections are, well, just what they are: threads that weave together through the years with your neighbors, digital community, and peers. Some will be long-lasting. Others, ephemeral. Over time, with a bit of effort and curiosity, you may look up and realize that you are that type of person — one with a web of contacts, a champion of your friends’ successes — a networker, even.
Rebecca Pitts writes and makes stuff for kids + kids at heart. She is the founder and creative behind Hudson + Daughter and a contributor at Dear Handmade Life. Her work and ideas have been featured in Country Living, the Etsy Seller Handbook, the Martha Stewart American Made Market, Craft Industry Alliance, And North, Blog Society, and atly.