how to network

Jennifer Dziura writes career and life advice weekly on TheGloss. Here is an archive, and here is an archive of Bullish columns from our sister site TheGrindstone.

I’ve been in my career, as a full-time copywriter and freelance writer, for six years, and I still feel as if I have no strong connections. At this point, I sense my career has stalled, and not being able to network has held me back from moving forward.

I’ve tried networking before. While earning an undergraduate degree, I attended a networking seminar, and being that it was 2005, the speaker told us to “Contact experts at trade publications.” This befuddled me at the time: Why would someone with an established career want to even help, let alone respond to, an inquiry from a “lesser-than”? Isn’t networking a mutual give-and-take relationship?

Two years later, while earning a graduate degree, I spoke with a career counselor, who asked me to contact school alumni for “informational interviews.” A few responded to me, but from there, I didn’t know where to go. How do you keep them interested? What’s the protocol for developing a networking relationship?

By luck, I found a full-time job in my field, but in the four years I have worked there, I haven’t gone to a single networking or industry event. Where I work, you can only go to such events if you make sales for the company. I don’t have a sales personality or appearance, and I fear going to such events would make a negative impression for my workplace.

I don’t have the usual network of friends and family, either, and my coworkers are the gossiping type. Even though I have managed to get somewhere (and score freelance clients on occasion in my own time), this seems to be as far as I can get.

What is your advice for a person with zero connections to get started with networking? How do you get to events where you don’t have to represent a company? What’s your take on LinkedIn? And, once you have initially communicated with someone, how do you create a relationship?

-Wallflowery

Dear Flowery,

“Contact experts at trade publications” was pretty cool advice in 1992, so it’s sad that someone told you to do that in 2005. That’s not too far from “Publish your AOL email address on the awning of your bakery.”

In this country, we really do sell people an education and then shove them out into the world with nothing else. When I was in college, it was common knowledge that our career counselors were good for herding people through the formalized hiring process for investment banking and consulting, and not good for much else. If anyone has worked with a college counselor who can tell you how to promote yourself through social media, or run a successful campaign on Kickstarter, or just be a freelancer in general (creating contracts, setting rates, collections), please, leave a comment. I’d love to hear about this mythical unicorn.

Why would experts want to hear from you?

You asked, “Why would someone with an established career want to even help, let alone respond to, an inquiry from a ‘lesser-than’? Isn’t networking a mutual give-and-take relationship?”

Let’s jump back to 1992 again. Pre-internet, writing to experts at trade publications required, I think, figuring out what publications existed in your field, and then buying copies or physically finding them at the library and looking at the mastheads to find out who the experts were, and then writing letters on a typewriter or a really lame computer that was basically a typewriter, and then waiting and hoping for a response.

So basically, I’m saying that writing letters to experts at trade publications was hard enough that not many people really did it, so the people receiving the letters were actually somewhat likely to reply, because they’d be a little bit impressed that you got that far, and if you wrote a good letter, they’d also feel flattered.

That principle, at least, still applies.

I’m sure experts today receive more emails than experts of yesteryear received actual letters. Sure, it’s easy to send an email.

I mean, it’s easy to send a crappy email.

A crappy email to an author says something like, “I see you wrote a famous book. I would also like to write a famous book. Let me tell you all about it. How can I make my book as famous as yours? Thanks in advance for your time.”

A good email would probably come after having actually read the author’s entire book. And it would be mostly about the author. “As a grad student in psychology, I really enjoyed your book. I was wondering about something. On page 28, you say this about such-and-such, and on page 135, you give an example. I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the recent discovery of something about such-and-such. Does this change your views about such-and-such? If you have time to respond, I would love to hear anything you have to say. Or, if you’ve ever thought of writing a blog post about this, I’d be excited to read it.”

Most authors are pretty into hearing from nice, thoughtful people who actually read their entire books. As opposed to self-serving people who seem to want to crawl up inside the expert’s skin and become them (or even beat them at something) without putting in the effort that the author did.

In fact, I feel like you almost answered your own question a bit. Why would an expert want to hear from a “lesser-than”? Because it’s not very often in life that someone wants to have a relationship with you where they’re the “lesser-than.” That’s really attractive to a lot of people. The expert gets to feel good, and then magnanimously help you out without feeling threatened.

The best networking events may not be networking events

You don’t want thrust yourself into a room full of salespeople anyway. Those are the worst damn kind of networking events.

One excellent kind of networking event is an event that attracts a lot of people who are pretty successful and with whom you will have something in common — such as wanting to raise money for a charity, or get women candidates elected, or meditate, or lose weight, or play kickball in the park — but who aren’t there to network. Then you can have non-lame conversations about something you actually have in common before the conversation turns to what everybody does for a living.

Service organizations often hold networking events or mixers. Here in NYC, I get invites to events for the Women’s Education Project, and the 101% Society is ridiculously full of successful, justice-minded 20- and 30-somethings. A friend of mine enjoys The Junior League. ZogSports is a “charity-oriented, co-ed, social sports league.” Women are apparently forming “Lean In” groups; those and many other women’s events are listed on Levo League‘s local listings.

Of course, your workplace can’t prohibit you from attending social or charity events.

Also keep in mind that if you meet people at a mixer for all the people who walk shelter dogs and raise money for the ASPCA, whatever you do is probably more novel and therefore interesting to the people you meet. At an industry-specific event, there are a lot of people just like you. At the ASPCA volunteer mixer, you’re likely to meet someone who finds what you do fascinating. There are dentists for whom meeting a circus performer is exotic, and circus performers for whom hanging out socially with a dentist is pretty exotic.

Networking with people outside your field can be especially helpful because they are oblivious to the politics in your industry, and they’re not spending any personal cred by making introductions. If you’re the only freelance writer a veterinarian knows, and her husband’s sister is a magazine editor, it doesn’t cost her anything socially to send an email with a link to your online portfolio.

As I wrote in, Bullish: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18, the best networking is often just making regular friends and being kind to them and keeping in touch. If you’re young, this is a long-term plan: you have to make good friends and then wait until they start having important jobs. But good networking is always a long-term plan.

Keeping in touch when you don’t have a strong personal connection

A young woman I know has a small group of mentors, including me, who she met through Upstart.com. She sends regular emails every 3 months or so, with updates on how she’s doing. It’s a nice approach, because the emails are enjoyable to read, and don’t necessarily require a response. Sometimes, I might respond, “Congratulations!” Sometimes, I might write back with an offer to help with something.

If someone has helped you even once, it seems like they might want to know whether their assistance has been useful to you. This also gives you an excuse to keep in touch. How about a short email that says, “Hi, I hope you remember me — you were kind enough to meet with me for an informational interview in 2011. We talked about X and Y, and I thought you might be interested to hear about the progress I’ve made with X and Y. Since 2011, I’ve done X, Y, and Z, and I really appreciated your advice to do such-and-such. I also read this fascinating article that relates to what we talked about, so I wanted to send it along in case you hadn’t seen it. Hope you’re well and having a nice summer.”

That’s it. If the person doesn’t respond, it’s not embarrassing or anything. It’s very likely that this kind of email would be read and remembered even if you don’t get a response. For people with whom your connection is pretty tenuous, maybe you send these once a year. This is a long-term plan.

Introvert much?

You mention that your coworkers are “gossipy,” which is a big sign that you’re an introvert. (A lot of people consider that “sociable.”)

Don’t count out your extrovert coworkers. There’s a good chance they think you think you’re too good for them. Introverts often come off as supercilious. Maybe you can make friends with just one extrovert, which will connect you to the group. And then, when needed, explain your introversion not so much in terms of what you don’t like (gossip, parties, meeting strangers), but in terms of what you do (I am REALLLY looking forward to my new Netflix movies and a bowl of popcorn tonight! I’m going to fix up my garden this weekend. What are your plans?)

That said, the world is big. Your industry’s probably pretty big. The body of people who know someone in your industry is definitely big. You can vastly increase your network even if you only network with other introverts. I’ve been facilitating a lot of introvert networking lately, which is awesome, because the Internet is now well-developed for this purpose, and it would really suck if we had to find each other’s names on the mastheads of trade publications (here, a bunch of ladies made infographics about each other, which is networking and learning a skill at the same time).

How else do you network with other introverts? Compliment them on their blog posts. Once each of you has read over a dozen of each other’s blog posts, suggest maybe meeting up for coffee sometime. Surely I can’t be the only person who feels like meeting people without knowing anything about them in advance is inefficient and usually fruitless for anything except casual sex?

I like to host nerdy cocktail parties (I buy a lot of booze, and usually about 8 people sit in chairs around my coffee table and have interesting discussions). You could host a Ladies’ Working Brunch, which is one of the only kinds of parties that works just fine if only one other person comes.

Because introverts tend to have fewer connections, the connections they do have play a larger role. You can use your personality type to your advantage. Instead of shaking hands with salespeople and eating cheese cubes off a cocktail napkin, you can network in ways that are real and meaningful.

Introverts win at things all the time. Just quietly. Introverts are people who read the whole book before asking a question. Introverts respect that about each other.

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