Do you dread attending office parties? You're not alone. A lot of people would rather have their teeth drilled than have to spend an hour making small talk with a room full of strangers.
Unfortunately, you have to do it, if only because you care about your career. The old adage, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," while grammatically questionable, is still perfectly true. The more people you can meet and form connections with, the better your odds of success.
With this in mind, entrepreneur and speaker Alaina G. Levine authored Networking for Nerds: Find, Access Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere. "I myself am a nerd," Levine says. She graduated with a mathematics degree. When her advisor told her there were simply no jobs for mathematicians--besides teaching other people to be mathematicians--Levine thought that something was amiss.
"I began to realize that scientists and other nerds are not taught what networking is and why it's important," she says. "I had to learn it myself and I wanted to share with other introverts that networking is an authentic and honorable activity. It's not like selling a used car, and it's an important thing to do if you're going to move forward in your career. Networking is the most powerful tool everyone has in their career development toolbox."
You don't have to be an actual nerd to benefit from Levine's networking wisdom. The key, she says, is to go into a networking situation with the right attitude. Here are her tips for making networking both as palatable and as profitable as possible:
1. Think big picture.
"Networking is not me drilling for oil from you," Levine says. "It's about crafting mutually beneficial partnerships that bring value to both people. It's a spectrum of activities that begins with that first interaction and ends only when one of you drops dead. That first meeting serves as the foundation for the partnership."
With that in mind, when you meet someone for the first time, your goal should be to find ways to help that person. Approach networking in the spirit of generosity, and you'll be a master at it.
2. Focus on passions.
Look for activities, ideas, and subjects that both you and the person you're talking with really enjoy. "It's always a privilege and a pleasure to talk with people who are interested in the same things you are," Levine notes. And if you can get someone talking about something they love, that's a great way to start a relationship, she says. "You become a reminder of what they're passionate about."
3. Avoid hot-button topics.
"Just like if you were dating, you would not start out with a divisive topic such as politics or religion," Levine notes. "You want to make sure your new acquaintance equates you with happy thoughts. Later on you can discuss things like politics. You want to lay a good foundation for a mutually beneficial and pleasurable relationship, so you want to be controversy-free from the start."
4. Stay in touch.
"Because it's a spectrum of activities, you have to stay constantly connected to people and constantly follow up," Levine says. "That doesn't mean you stalk them or send pictures of cats on a daily basis. Send information, articles, and useful videos." One easy thing to do is send a holiday card, and Levine sends handwritten cards to colleagues, clients, partners, and people she's networked with in the past. The timing is often good, she adds, as people start planning their business for the coming year.
5. Be open-minded.
"I once heard someone say you should never network with someone outside your profession because what could they possibly give you?" Levine says. "I think that's ridiculous."
Instead, she advises casting a wide net, using LinkedIn and Meetup to connect with people over all sorts of shared interests. Levine, who is a runner, is planning to attend a running group party she saw announced recently on Facebook. Eighty people said they would be attending. "It will all be people excited about running," she says. "And with 80 people you never know who you're going to meet."
6. Consider creating an event yourself.
This may sound like dumb advice for people who hate parties, but there's some logic to it. "Introverts go to networking functions and the challenge is that they don't know what to say to people," Levine explains. If you're the host of an event, you immediately have a reason to talk to anyone who walks in because it's your job to welcome them to the event.
"Not only do you have the chance to make new contacts but you now have the spotlight on you as the entrepreneur who took the initiative to host the event," she says. "That can be networking platinum."
7. Be strategic.
You won't get to meet 30 people at an event, so instead just try to meet 10 to 15 people you might want to partner with, Levine advises. "Remember, the party is not the place to do business," she adds. "Enjoy the moment, exchange business cards, and follow up later." (See tip 4.)
8. Eat and drink--in moderation.
"This is not college where we would go to events for free food and alcohol," Levine says. "We go with a strategic point in mind. You're not there to pig out and you're not there to get drunk."
So, she says, maintain your decorum and be serious about your craft at all times. "You want people to see you as a professional, and they won't do that if you're wasted," Levine says. "You also won't be able to network efficiently."
9. Be bold.
Networking rewards those who are willing to step outside their comfort zones. "Most people don't have the courage to pursue opportunities," Levine says. "If you can walk up to Bill Gates at a party and say, 'I'd love to work with you and I think I have something to offer,' you'll be at a distinct advantage." Like anything else, going up to strangers and introducing yourself gets easier with practice, Levine notes. "So take advantage of as many chances to network and opportunities to collaborate as you possibly can."