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How To Get Over Your Fear of Networking

Posted by | March 4, 2015 | Advice, Career, Networking

Via LinkedIn : “I will only tell you if you promise not to laugh at me,” I told my fiancé. I was between jobs, and he had called me midday to see what I was doing. “I am hiding in bed with a pillow over my head because I’m afraid to start my job hunt. Everyone says ‘it’s about networking’ but I don’t know where to begin.”

Not long thereafter, a kind career counselor coached me in networking, a skill that’s helped me find jobs, investments, great people for the companies I invest in and partners. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Step 1: Sort Your List. As an engineer, I thought prioritizing outreach would be all about optimizing. I thought I should maybe start with less experienced people and work my way up within a target organization, or begin with less-desirable companies for practice, then get to the best employers. Or lead off with senior executives and have them hand me down to hiring managers. This was all wrong.

The optimal algorithm is one that keeps you networking even when you’re intimidated. Make a list of possibly relevant people you know, then start with the people you like on that list. Because you will enjoy those meetings, you will keep going. Connections, meetings and flow are your friend. Another key networking rule is to come out of each meeting with two more names. If you begin with people you enjoy, then add twice as many new people who you’re also likely to enjoy, your network of nice, helpful, connected individuals and organizations will grow exponentially. Somewhere in your growing community is the job or partner you are looking for.

Step 2: Be Efficient with Their Time. Just like in math class, doing your homework is essential for networking. Contact your prospect via a relevant channel, ideally through an introduction. If you have to “cold-outreach” to someone, use LinkedIn, or find his or her email. Ask for a short in-person meeting and fall back to a call if you must. Don’t offer breakfast, lunch or coffee—be clear that yours is going to be an efficient meeting.

In your email, share your background and goals, and why you are contacting him or her. Then, really prepare for your meeting or call; read up on the company, so you can ask good questions, not waste precious time discussing basic facts you could have found on the web. Asking open-ended questions, like “what kind of person is successful here?” is a much stronger conversation-starter than “do employees require a technical degree?”

Step 3: The Calculus of Conferences. If you are headed to an industry event to network, have a plan and follow it. Analyze the attendee or exhibitor list before you go, map the show floor, and follow your map to new meetings. If possible, send meeting requests before you leave, so you have some face- to-face chats lined up. A few simple tricks will make it easier for others to find and talk to you. Wear something bright, possibly quite bold. I have a rack of “Sharon’s conference jackets.” If I’m going someplace to network, I want to be easy to spot. Second, put your nametag on your right shoulder—don’t let it dangle down at your navel. People want to be able to read your nametag as they shake your hand. It’s loud, faces blur—make it easy for people you want to talk with to feel comfortable getting to know you.

Be personally present. Don’t shyly hide behind your phone. Make your visit worth it by being open to talking—or to asking open-ended questions, as I mentioned above. And, if you are just thrown into a giant clump of people at a cocktail party, you can always break the ice with conversational basics, then move on to business topics. It is OK to politely step away if it’s clear you and your chance encounter aren’t clicking.

Food is always a great networking draw; chat up the people you meet in the buffet line or the bar. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, I met a very cool company by encouraging a group of tired attendees to share my table in a crowded cafeteria. We ended up hanging out for an hour comparing business models, and talking about entrepreneurs we knew. The time was productive for all of us, and we were all rejuvenated enough to dive back onto the show floor.

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