If you’re looking to expand your professional reach and influence, our guide on how to network is a must-read. Find out why it’s important, who you should be meeting, and how to get started.
People are social creatures. Our ability to communicate and cooperate in large groups is part of what’s made us so successful. In the modern world, we form networks of all kinds, whether they’re made of family, friends, or professional connections. But not everyone finds the latter easy, which is why we’re taking a detailed look at how to network.
A professional network can come in handy for all sorts of reasons. Yet when you’re just starting out, it can be hard to know who you should be reaching out to, how big your network should be, and how to get started with networking. We look at all of these points and more.
What is business networking?
Networking is something we all do, whether consciously or not. It’s simply the process of interacting with others and developing the connection through the exchange of information. Much like a computer network, data is shared between individuals in the network.
Our personal networks consist of those relationships we rely on for support in some way. This broad scope means that our friends, family, peer group, club members, fellow students, and other close people can all be part of our personal network.
In many ways, our professional networks are the same. They are the connections we meet through work (and related events) that share similar purposes and aspirations, whether it’s learning, exchanging ideas, or advancing our careers.
Networking is the process through which we make and develop these connections. It’s a broad term that can include a variety of formal and informal activities. Effective business networking happens on many different fronts, often, but not exclusively, in a professional setting.
Why is networking important?
Before we get onto how to network, let’s first look at why it’s important. You’ve probably heard the expression ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ Although a slightly cynical outlook on the subject, it’s true that having contacts in your industry can often help you progress.
There are several reasons why networking is an essential part of your professional life. Although not every reason is relevant to every individual, we’ve highlighted some of the main motivations for networking:
- Finding work. According to some recent marketing statistics, around 85% of new hires are made through networking. When it comes to finding a new role, your professional network can give you access to all kinds of opportunities.
- Helping new ideas and creativity. Your network gives you a pool of ideas and the chance to discuss them, helping you find creative solutions to the challenges you face in your career.
- Building genuine relationships. It’s a lot easier to navigate the professional landscape when you know people in your industry. When moving into new roles or companies, it always helps when you know a few faces.
- Getting support. As you progress through the ranks of your chosen career, it can always help to have some high profile individuals looking out for you. If you’re looking for advice and guidance, it can be invaluable to rely on the people you already know.
- Comparing your progress. Having an extensive network allows you to see where your strengths and weaknesses lay. You can look at those who are at a similar level to you, as well as those who have progressed beyond that.
Clearly, it can be beneficial to know how to network. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way street. To maintain your professional network, you’ll need to be willing to offer support and advice when others reach out.
Who should I be networking with?
It’s tempting to assume that the more people in your network, the better. And, while it’s true that having more people can increase your access to the benefits of having a network, there is a balance.
Going back to the marketing statistics mentioned earlier, 41% of professionals surveyed wanted to network more but didn’t have enough time. Clearly then, the time you do have should be spent on the people who are most relevant and beneficial to your network.
There are no hard and fast rules for who you should be networking with. It depends largely on the industry you’re working in and your aspirations. However, there are some traits and types of people to look out for:
- Those who are interested in the current circumstances, as well as long-term development
- Decision-makers who can provide leads and further contacts
- Those who can share their own experiences, as well as help and give advice
- Role models whose work you admire, whether it’s in your industry or an adjacent one
- Those who will cheer you on and share in your success
Ideally, these types of people will have demonstrated their abilities rather than just boasted about them. You want to express your own (and find others who are capable of) entrepreneurial thinking while avoiding those who are focused solely on their own needs. As you learn how to network, you’ll find it easier to know who is worth connecting with.
How big should my professional network be?
Again, there’s no exact number you can put on how many people should be in your network. While a wide and varied pool of people to call on can certainly have its benefits, there is a limit to how many people you can maintain strong connections with.
In 1992, esteemed Oxford University psychologist, Robin Dunbar, theorised that there is a maximum number of people we can maintain meaningful contact with. On average, this number is around 150 people. Although somewhat debated, particularly in the age of social media, it’s a compelling theory. It shows that the quality of your contacts is just as, if not more, important than the quantity.
While you should spend time meeting and connecting with a broad range of professionals, you shouldn’t feel pressured to meet a certain number. You’ll see people on LinkedIn with well over 500 contacts, but that doesn’t mean they’re all valuable connections.
Instead, focus on the types of people you want to add to your network. It’s far better to foster meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships than aim for sheer volume.
Business networking during COVID-19
Before we get into more details on how to network, it’s worth taking a quick look at how things stand at the time of writing. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted us all in numerous ways. The way we meet and greet people is, for the time being, different than before. As such, networking might be slightly more challenging at the moment, although far from impossible.
Much of the advice we outline further down still rings true. However, there are some additional considerations to bear in mind:
- Virtual is more important. As many people are working from home or remotely and large gatherings aren’t going ahead, online activities are increasingly essential. While many in-person networking events may be cancelled, there are often virtual alternatives.
- Respect social distancing. The traditional handshake and exchange of business cards aren’t appropriate right now. Make sure to obey social distancing measures if you are meeting people face-to-face.
- Ask for help. It’s a tough time for many people right now, so don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from your network where appropriate. Whether it’s keeping an eye out for job vacancies or sharing your posts on social media, these gestures can go a long way.
- Offer help. Similarly, networking is a mutual thing. If you see people among your connections who could benefit from your expertise, don’t be afraid to offer a hand if you think it’s appropriate.
How to Network
Lesser advice on how to network might tell you to just get out there and start talking to people. We know it’s not always that easy, particularly if you’re feeling a bit shy or nervous. Thankfully, there are plenty of steps that you can take to make the process a lot more straightforward.
Although talking to people and getting your name out there is certainly useful, there’s often a lot of preparation that needs to go into such activities. Whether it’s focusing on some of the basic skills, preparing for events, or knowing where to start, there are plenty of things you can do to make your networking more successful.
One of the best places to start when it comes to networking is to work on some of the essential skills you’ll need. Many of these can help across your career as well, making them worthwhile time investments. We’ve outlined just some of the areas you might want to work on:
- Building relationships. Knowing how to foster professional connections is always a useful skill, and one of the essential parts of networking.
- Communication. You’ll encounter all kinds of people during your career, and being able to effectively communicate with them is incredibly valuable.
- Digital skills. To network in the modern world, you need a solid grasp on current digital trends and technology.
- Creating a professional online presence. As well as understanding the technology, you’ll also need to know how to market yourself online.
- Entrepreneurship. As well as helping you find other like-minded people, demonstrating your entrepreneurial spirit can help make you an attractive prospect to potential connections.
- Career development skills. Networking plays a significant role in helping you advance in your career. The right skills can make both processes far easier.
Whether you’re attending a specific networking event or simply hoping to build connections through your day-to-day, you need to be prepared. The last thing you want to do is encounter a potentially valuable connection, only to fluff your lines or forget to exchange details.
Here are some of the things you’ll need to consider when you’re thinking about how to network:
- An elevator pitch. When someone asks you about your work, you want to be able to give a concise and interesting answer. Spend some time thinking about your goals and achievements and practice giving a natural presentation of what you’re all about. Be sincere and don’t brag.
- Your online profiles. Whether it’s your LinkedIn or other social media accounts, make sure they’re up-to-date and professional.
- Your credentials. A business card is often a good idea (see COVID-19 exceptions), and if you have a portfolio or website, make sure they are ready to receive visitors.
- Listening skills. If you’re nervous, it can be easy to instantly forget someone’s name when they first introduce themselves. Practice your active listening skills to make sure you’re attentive and receptive when interacting with new people.
Where to start
So, you’ve brushed up on your skills and prepared some of the essentials, but how do you get started with networking? In reality, there are several options available to you. Depending on the circumstances and how confident you are, you may either want to take it slow or jump right in.
We’ll cover some specific examples of networking opportunities further down, but for now, here are some ideas on how you can start networking:
- Start small. If you’re a little shy around new people, you might want to practice a bit to get your eye in. Try networking among your friends, family, and co-workers to give you a confidence boost. You can ask them about their work and industry, and tell them about your own. Once you’re feeling comfortable, move onto casual acquaintances and beyond.
- Prepare to listen. We can’t stress enough that networking is a two-way thing. Go into networking opportunities with the intention of listening and learning. Make sure to get peoples’ names and say them back to the person, and ask them about themselves.
- Try making friends first. When you’re talking to new people, don’t try and force the business connection. Be yourself, listen to what they have to say, and be friendly. Don’t push an agenda.
- Go to networking events. Going to a networking event (online or in-person) can make things a little easier. After all, you’re all there for the same reason. Sign up for an event and test your new-found skills.
Business networking opportunities
By this point, you’re probably eager to get started with your networking activity. If you’re looking for some inspiration on where you can meet professional connections, we’ve got you covered. Below, we’ve highlighted just some of the networking opportunities you can take advantage of:
- Networking events. These are so useful, we’ve mentioned them twice! Whether it’s speed networking (like speed dating), Meetup groups, or other specific events, you’re sure to meet all kinds of people who are willing to connect with you. Again, make sure to adhere to our COVID-19 advice if meeting in-person.
- Social Media. LinkedIn is the place to be when it comes to the volume of people. A professional profile, contribution to discussions, and joining industry Groups can all help. Don’t neglect other social media channels, where you can share your own work and opinions.
- Conferences. Conferences (virtual or otherwise) can be an excellent way of meeting new people related to your industry. There are all kinds of meetings, workshops, and talks you can get involved with, and striking up a conversation should be easy.
- Courses. With a course, you’re also likely to meet like-minded people. After all, you’ve all signed up to learn about the same topic. Discussion is usually encouraged on courses, which means you’re sure to encounter a lot of people.
- Societies. Whether it’s industry-specific roundtable events, community meetings, or non-profit events, you’ll find a broad range of people at each. Not only does this help you practice mixing with people, but it also gives you a chance to make new connections.
Of course, you don’t want to limit yourself to only formal events. If the topic of work comes up naturally in your day-to-day, it can’t hurt to learn more about the people you’re talking with. The beauty of networking is that you never know when you’re going to meet a mutually valuable connection.
So, what do we know about how to network? Clearly, it’s a worthwhile activity that can help you in both your professional and personal life. But it isn’t always easy (we’re looking at you, coronavirus). However, with a bit of know-how, practice, and preparation, you can start making connections almost anywhere you go.
Perhaps the most important aspect to bear in mind is that it’s something that should benefit everyone involved. By listening to other people and building genuine relationships with them, you’ll have no problems growing your network.