The value of personal connections when building your career (or seeking out other opportunities) has for many years been captured in sayings like ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know.’ More recently, research has confirmed the importance to one’s career progression of making personal connections: by some estimates, up to 60 per cent of jobs are never advertised, belonging instead to what recruitment experts call the ‘hidden job’ market.
Such hidden jobs are usually filled by candidates who catch the attention of recruiters through personal referrals or by making a strong impression at a networking event. This gives them an enormous advantage beyond being considered for an unlisted position: according to one survey, referred applicants are five times more likely than average to be hired, and 15 times more likely to be hired than applicants from a job board.
In other words, developing connections through professional networking can give your career an enormous boost. And that’s not all—networking also allows you to:
Given the obvious benefits of networking, it’s dispiriting to note that many people struggle to network effectively. However, in their defence, unless you’re born with an enormous dose of charisma and natural savoir-faire, networking isn’t easy. It requires you (at least, initially) to get outside of your comfort zone, interact with strangers, and manage the pressure of knowing that first impressions really are lasting (which means that a bad one can be as life-changing as a good one, albeit in a much less welcome way).
So, if you’re uncertain about your own networking skills, or preparing for your first graduate networking event, then this article is for you. We’ve brought together five must-know tips that will help you stand out from the crowd and network like a seasoned pro.
In the context of this article, we’ll use ‘networking’ to refer specifically to face-to-face interactions, in a professional or semi-professional setting (for example, a workplace or careers fair), that aim to establish relationships with people who will become your friends, employers, or colleagues. The advice below does not apply to digital networking (such as that which takes place on websites like LinkedIn) or to ordinary socialising (in which case you are strongly advised to leave your business cards at home).
Does this seem obvious? It should be obvious. Nevertheless, many people attend networking events without having conducted basic research about the hosts or the other (probable) guests. In doing so, they deprive themselves of an opportunity to get the most out of their networking experience.
You needn’t make the same mistake: instead, commit to learning as much as you can about a networking event before attending it. For example, if you’re planning to network at a careers fair, consider the following:
Perhaps the most important thing you can do before turning up to the networking event is to identify what your goals are. Are you hoping to make friends? Impress prospective employers? Meet specific people? Ask important questions? Arrive with a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve—this will help you to focus on the important stuff, which, in turn, can give you a confidence-boosting sense of purpose.
The people you meet at a networking event will fall into two categories: those you’ve met before and those whom you’re meeting for the first time. Ideally, you should strike a balance between the two, using the event as an opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces (especially if there are people you recognise but haven’t yet gotten to know very well), while also seeking out brand new connections.
If anything, your emphasis should be on the latter: reconnect briefly and, if appropriate (or desirable), share details that will allow you to catch up in the future. Then focus on expanding your social and professional circles, which is, ultimately, the purpose of a networking event.
What you generally don’t want to do is spend the event exclusively in the company of people that you know well already: there’s a good chance that you’ll miss an opportunity to make a valuable new connection, something that it’s much easier to do at a dedicated event than in the workplace.
Confidence is the sum of preparation and practice: by giving some thought to how you’ll approach conversations at a networking event, you’ll build (or bolster) the secure belief that you can rely on yourself, even if, at first, the thought of greeting strangers gives you butterflies in your stomach. Understand that everybody experiences self-doubt from time to time, even beacons of self-esteem who appear to treat networking events like social all-you-can-eat buffets.
To help you push through it, let’s focus on your introduction—if you can get past that, then you may discover that you’re participating in a conversation just like any other. Here are five tips to help you build an opener that leads to a fruitful and enjoyable interaction:
Many people will default to a variation on the time-tested question, ‘What do you do?’. This isn’t necessarily a bad opener, but in many cases (i.e. at an accountant’s networking event) the answer could be a bit obvious. The question may also embarrass career-changers or graduates who are re-entering the job market after a period of travel or unemployment. Consider trying a less direct alternative, such as, ‘How do you fill your time?’ But be prepared to hear, in response, ‘With networking events.’
If you don’t have an obvious answer—you may be a jobseeker yourself, or planning to study in the future—adapt your answer accordingly. For example, you might say: ‘I’m focused on mental health, and, in the future, I’d really like to make a difference by working with disadvantaged populations.’
Alternatively, you could lead the way: be prepared to share an interesting anecdote about your own experiences. Don’t just be a lawyer: be a lawyer who is ready to discuss a pressing legal issue or a surprising aspect of life in a firm or something similar. Remember: the best conversations don’t involve only an exchange of facts, but also an exchange of excitement and enthusiasm.
So, you’ve introduced yourself… what now? If you’re unsure or uneasy when making conversation with new connections, these tips are for you:
‘It’s been really great meeting you, but I want to ask the speaker/a colleague some questions before he/she leaves.’
‘Well, I want to make sure to say hello to at least three people tonight!’
‘Anyway, I don’t want to take up all of your time.’
You can then thank your conversational partner in a specific way: ‘Thanks for sharing your experiences as a graduate engineer. You’ve helped me answer some important questions’ or ‘I appreciate your telling me more about life within a law firm.’ Then shake hands, and, with conviction, depart to do the thing you said you were going to do.
At the end of a mutually satisfying conversation, you may decide to swap details with the other party. Ideally, you should aim to be the type of person who collects details instead of giving them away, which gives you the option of following up later. However, with that option comes a responsibility: it’s on you to make sure that you do reconnect with people you’d like to stay in touch with. To make this easier, it’s a good idea to adopt a consistent approach.
For example, you could reach out to people on an appropriate social media platform (i.e. LinkedIn) or send a short message to their email address. Be sure to thank them for their time, reiterate that you enjoyed meeting them, and keep the conversation going by asking any outstanding questions, suggesting a time to meet up, or sharing anything your promised to deliver (for example, an interesting article you mentioned during your conversation).
Alternatively, if you want to consolidate the connection without taking things further immediately, you can keep your message short and sweet: ‘Hi Jane, It was great meeting you at the graduate networking event on Sunday. Best of luck with the next stage of your CPA!’
Networking events really are an invaluable tool for getting to know your colleagues better, creating new connections, learning from your peers, and making a favourable impression on potential employers. We hope that the advice above helps you to approaching networking with confidence and success. Now it’s up to you to put your skills into practice.