“Networking.” Just mention the word and watch the eyes either glaze over with anticipated boredom, or widen with preemptive anxiety. Most people think networking only happens at boozy after-hours events filled with know-it-alls in suits. But networking is actually a huge umbrella of activities that includes anything you do to connect with other professionals with the goal of learning and growing your career. It’s time to start thinking about networking as a varied garden of opportunities, rather than a stuffy room full of strange people and bad appetizers.
Networking can grow your professional network, help you learn new skills, give you insights into the job market, or all of the above. Yes, meeting new people may push you outside your comfort zone. But I would argue that there’s a networking event out there for everybody. It’s just about finding what works for you.
To get you started, let’s explore the many ways you can network, whether you want to learn, meet people, create connections, or just have a fun evening out! Let’s look at different types of networking events and how you can choose what’s worth your time and effort.
Social Networking Events
Traditional networking events are focused on the meet and greet, and give you a great opportunity to meet several new people in the course of an hour. Remember, most everyone has some anxiety about meeting new people, and socially-focused networking events take the pressure off. Everyone is there for the same reason, so you don’t need to be scared to talk to others.
Round tables and speed networking
Prepare your elevator pitch and pull up a chair. Round table networking assigns you to a table and makes you move periodically, so you can engage in group discussion and gather business cards. Speed networking is just like speed dating, but without the romance.
- Try it if you make a good first impression and aren’t afraid to talk about yourself without much warmup.
- Tip: Give them your business card! It will prompt the other person to give you theirs. Then you can reach out to interesting folks via email or LinkedIn after the whirlwind subsides.
Mixers and happy hour events
When you say “networking event,” most people think of mixers. These are typically not programmed events, and they’re based around loose themes. Often business organizations will hold regular events like this to bring people in for easy, typically low or no cost networking.
- Try it if you’re new to town or new to a specific industry. You can meet new people in a more relaxed atmosphere.
- Tip: Smaller, volunteer-led networking groups tend to form around more specific topics; check Meetup for events in your area.
Network through learning and shared activities
If you consider yourself introverted or shy, you probably don’t want to go to big events with a lack of structure. Seek out more organized events, panel discussions, and volunteer opportunities that focus on a specific thing. This way, you have something concrete to talk about with the people you meet! Shared learning is also a great way to bond with new professional connections.
Panel discussions and presentations
Panel discussions or solo presentations are a great way to learn something new and start easy conversations with fellow attendees about the subject matter of the event.
- Try it if you want to learn more about a certain industry or topic and you find panels and presentations that align. And if you want to mix and mingle but struggle with small talk, these are great opportunities to get into conversation with fellow attendees.
- Tip: Look for events with speakers that are either relevant to your current role or in an industry you want to learn more about.
Community groups, boards, and committees
Connecting through shared activity is essential to human nature. Just think about how you made most of your lifelong friends. So join groups that align with your professional interests, and you’ll form relationships with folks who can help shape your career!
- Try it if you have the desire and time to volunteer, and enjoy spending time with others who share your interest.
- Tip: Find volunteer opportunities and groups that have a clear outline of the time and resources they need from you. Make sure you don’t over-commit!
College alumni associations
If you went to a college or university, chances are your school has an alumni association. Check it out online, join up with local get togethers in your city, or just reconnect with old classmates. You never know who might have a great opportunity for you.
- Try it if you want to meet or reconnect with your fellow alumni around a common interest.
- Tip: Attend alumni events for a more structured presentation and to learn what’s new at your alma mater. You can also use an online alumni database to get in touch with individual folks you studied with.
Professional education: workshops, seminars, and courses
When you embark on continuing education courses and certificate programs with an eye toward expanding your network, you’ll learn just as much from your fellow students as you do from your teachers.
- Try it if you need continuing education for your career goals and you want to connect with peers who are similarly situated.
- Tip: Choose professional education that will get you interacting with fellow students. Ask about group work and how much professional networking will be included in the course before you sign up.
Some people love going to conferences, others dislike the constant schmoozing and the crowds (though there are plenty of niche conferences that offer more intimate environs). Wherever you land, conferences are powerful tool to learn a ton and meet people with similar interests in a short amount of time.
- Try it if you want to do a deep dive into a particular topic and can afford the registration and potential travel costs.
- Tip: Don’t be afraid to walk up to people at conferences, especially if they’re standing alone. Start casual conversations, ask what they’re learning, and get a business card so you can follow up in more depth after the conference.
Online and one-on-one networking – avoid the awkward small talk
If you really truly hate the idea of meeting strangers in person and starting conversations from scratch, it’s OK to start small. Online networking and one-on-one conversations with people you meet through other means are great ways to grow your professional network and find new job opportunities.
Use social networks to find, follow, and engage with other professionals online. Find people you can learn from, whether they’re in your city or halfway around the world.
- Try it if you want to reach a large audience in your target market, choose your level of engagement, and tune in at your convenience.
- Tip: Use groups on LinkedIn and Facebook to find a wide variety of people working in your current industry or in sectors you’re interested in. But don’t just lurk. Find ways to connect online by liking others’ posts, commenting and engaging in discussions, and following up with private messages. Eventually you’ll have a strong professional connection to ask for advice, resources, and help in your career!
One of my favorite ways to network is through informational interviews. Informational interviews are short, one-on-one conversations between you and a professional working in your field of interest. When you invite someone to have an informational interview, you get to have a deeper conversation about your career interests and collect insider information. And yes, you should buy their coffee.
- Try it if you want to follow up with someone you met at a group networking event and learn more about their particular job, career path, or employer.
- Tip: Use informational interviews to forge deeper relationships with folks you’ve already met by asking them about their own career path, telling them about your goals, and sharing insights. Also, always end an informational interview with two questions: “How can I help you?” and “Who else should I talk to?”
As you can see, networking comes in many different shapes and sizes, with numerous formats to choose from. All in all, networking is just about connecting with others in your professional space. It’s about building the village that will strengthen and support your career as you move forward! And don’t forget: you’ll find more success, enjoyment, and connection in networking when you seek out the opportunities that align with your personality and your current career goal. Happy networking!