Photo: Sarah Betts and Heather Knight being goofy at SDExpo in PDX, 2018

Does the very word “Networking” make you cringe? Does it lead to a strong desire to go home, make snacks, and curl up with 12 seasons of your favorite show?

Me too.

Or at least that’s how I think of networking as it has come to be practiced. The funny thing is, I have a reputation among my friends and coworkers as “The Networking Queen.” Need to contact someone who has used that software? Ask Sarah. Want to know how others are changing up their hiring? Ask Sarah. Curious how work life is at that one company? Ask Sarah.

What’s my secret? Well, I don’t think of networking as showing up at a contrived cocktail hour to shake hands with 40 people who currently hate their job and hope you will introduce them to the hiring manager of their dreams. Instead, I focus on building a community of people who can help each other. I contend that if you stop “networking”, and start getting to know people, you’ll build a stronger, better network.

Let’s get started!

Finding your people

I think the reason networking gets such a bad name is that no one is in it to give. There is no human connection in shaking hands over bad pizza after a panel, or in handing out hundreds of business cards, or in the mad dash to get more followers and likes on LinkedIn. To make a community, everyone has to agree to make, build, and give.

Ask yourself, what do you love? What gets you excited about your job? What do you do in your spare time? What are you really good at? Then start talking about it. Seek out opportunities to give advice and help others build their skills. It’s that passion you have about something that will lead to connections with other humans.

Once you focus on your passions, finding people who share them isn’t too hard. Most professions have forums, groups, local meetups and more. Personally, I prefer online groups. Support Driven has been my home for years now — I found them through a podcast called Support Ops, and I found SupportOps through my hunt for information on improving my support skills. You’ll have your own goals and search terms, but the important thing to remember is not to search for “networking” resources. Instead, look for Slack communities and forums focused on learning, brainstorming, and sharing best practices.. This will ensure that you find groups focused on concrete human connections, rather than nebulous name collection.

Sharing your ideas

Talking about what you love, passionately, is the best way to get people interested in what you have to say. Set up a blog and write. Tweet out your posts and join in discussions on your favorite topics. Follow others who love what you do and amplify their voices. This doesn’t mean you need to inject yourself into every conversation. It does mean if someone asks for ideas on celebrating team wins, and your team has a weekly mini-celebration that works great, share it!

Getting out in the real world

Eventually, you’re going to have to take this community show live. If you’ve found a group of people online, look into attending an event that will bring you together in person. . Conferences and classes are my favorite way to get started. There is already a planned focus for the event, so you don’t feel as pressured to make meaningless small talk over cheap beer; with everyone is oriented toward discussing a specific topic, it’s much easier to build real connections.

The trick here is to be genuine. Talk about what you love, and then — this is the important part — give someone else a chance to talk about what they love. Be curious, and ask open-ended questions to give your conversation partner a chance to open up. This FastCompany article has some think-like-a-journalist tips for asking great questions.

Then, if possible, get the person’s contact details and follow up with a personal note:

 

“Hi Sam! It was great to meet you at the cheap beer festival! I loved what you had to say about finding that hidden level in Odyssey but forgot the details. Do you have time next week for a quick review?”

 

Something along those lines — friendly, reminds them where you met, and opens a chance for another meeting. And you didn’t ask to connect with their hiring manager once.

The fact is, humans are driven to connect to humans. By embracing that drive and letting those connections form as you would other friendships, you’ll build a network that’s more genuine, more enjoyable, and, quite frankly, more useful. And when it does come time to request an introduction to the hiring manager, your network will be able to pass on their knowledge of your passion and desire to learn, rather than just your resume and cocktail preferences.


Sarah Betts is a Feels Herder at Olark. She loves learning all about communication and how to make it more pleasant for everyone. She has spoken at multiple Support Driven events and is an active member of the SD community. Sarah originally published this on LinkedIn.

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