How to Network Effectively

Networking is a critically important skill. There is a great phrase that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time around. For humans, most of our environment is the social environment. Your ability to interact with others, and who those other people are, is most likely going to be your bottleneck on what you can accomplish in the world. Even skills like programming or engineering, where you’re creating something new in the world, are enabled by the web of social interactions you are embedded in – the greatest product in the world will never be used if it cannot be discovered.

Step One: Have a Goal

In theory you can network for the sole purpose of building your network, and I cover the value of this below. In most cases, however, this is largely useful only for those rare super-connectors who specialize in having a large network and making introductions.

If you have an existing job/project/business/etc then you probably have a clear idea in mind about how other people can help you. If you don’t have a clear idea of where your bottleneck is, figuring that out would be a very good first step, for your business as well as your networking…

Another good reason to be networking is if you are looking for a job, either in a new or current field. It is easier to network inside your own field, since you probably know many of the people involved and the places they usually congregate (e.g. conferences), and you can ask for direct introductions to people. When trying to enter a new profession, you primarily need to angle for getting informational interviews, and figure out if that is the career for you.

Step Two: Make a Plan

You will likely either be aiming towards a specific individual, or have a general type of person or role you are looking for. Aiming for a specific individual gives you the advantage of having a clear objective. In that case, you need to find out what public appearances they tend to make (such as a speech), opportunities where you can pay for their attention (e.g. seminars), and/or any common connections you have to them. This information is available online, including social networks. In many cases your best bet is to get an introduction from someone else you know, even if you need to make two or three jumps to get there. For someone particularly important, you may need to set subgoals of meeting their friends or business partners before approaching them directly.

Trying to fill a general role does not give you that clear objective, but the set of people who could fulfill the criterion is much much larger. In that case you’re mostly going to be going to larger networking events, where you can meet many people in one day. First come up with a list of all the relevant places you might find this person, and then make sure you go to them. When you are at these events, you need to keep your goal in mind, and direct your interactions towards meeting this goal. If you don’t meet someone who is in your specified group, ask that person if they know anyone who does fit your criterion. You need to be willing to end a conversation quickly in order to meet more people.

I personally recommend that, whenever possible, try to become someone’s friend instead of approaching them in a purely business context. Largely this is because most people seem to have an innate distrust of direct business proposals – if you are benefiting from it, I might be losing somehow. By instead trying to build a relationship with someone, they will come to trust you, and ideally even initiate the proposal to work with you further.

Step Three: Get Their Attention

Once you are in front of the person you want to be connecting with, you need to make sure that you get a chance to talk to them – and that they remember you afterwards. Optimizing your body language and wardrobe are key components in creating a great first impression in general, which is beyond the scope of this particular article. The most important thing is just to be internally confident, since your unconscious signals will tend to communicate this automatically.

After you have made your introduction, you have a very small window within which to keep their attention. To this end, you need to have something surprising to say. One answer is to have done your homework ahead of time, to know what they are interested in and working on, so that you can demonstrate to them that you understand their situation at a high level. You can either ask them an advanced question (normally people are happy to talk about their work beyond the basic explanation they give to everyone), or you can provide them with a piece of information they would be interested in. Ideally this is new information, but even if they already happen to know about it, you’re signaling to them that you have given this some thought and have more than a passing familiarity with the topic.

Step Four: Add Value

In order to convert an introduction into a connection, you need to be able to provide them with something useful. Note that this may or may not be related to their main project – for example, particularly intellectual people are often looking for exciting new ideas to think about, and simply being able to teach them something is very helpful. In internet marketing there are three dominant niches: health, money, and relationships. Almost everyone is looking for those three things, so if you can help them in any way in those areas, you can provide them lots of value.

In many cases you can directly help them with their projects. One of the most important ways you can add value is to connect them with other people they would like to meet – this is easier (and more valuable) the larger and more diverse your network is. If that is not an option, another way you can be useful is to actually do free work for the other person. This shows them you are capable of getting things done, it generates a lot of goodwill, and it gives you an excuse for further interaction with the person.

Step Five: Follow Up

This is probably the step that most people get wrong. First and foremost, you never just give them your card and walk away. There is a very high probability that they are too busy, or too flaky, or just simply don’t see the value proposition in continuing to interact with you, and they never follow up with you. Instead, always make sure you ask for their card. No exceptions. If they do not have a card, ask them for their contact info – at least in writing, if they don’t want others to overhear that information.

Your own cards are not totally useless, you can definitely optimize those as well. One thing you can do is to put your face on your card, that helps them to associate your name and face and remember the conversation better. The card itself can also have important information about the conversation, either identifying info about yourself, or something that you write on there to remind the other person what you talked about, or something for them to look into themselves. You can also just make the card generally distinctive, to help the memorability. As an example, one of my old cards used to say “Entrepreneur. Lifehacker. Primate.” No one failed to comment on that.

Do not wait to contact your newfound connection. I tend to follow up either that same night, or the very next day, with almost no exceptions. That memory of you will fade exponentially, and you need to refresh it periodically (see the concept of spaced repetition). Make sure to reference what you said during your introductory conversation, to continue building those associations with you. Ideally you should even follow up with additional value, like an introduction, or links to what you discussed, etc.

Depending on your goals, you might want to immediately see the person again. In such a case, when you are proposing an individual meeting, it is very useful for you to suggest three specific times that work for you. That way they can either immediately accept, or give you a counter proposal. Asking them to supply times will result in a drawn out conversation, not a meeting!

In Conclusion

This article incorporates the majority of the techniques I am using in order to build up my own connections. Following this advice should get you a long way there. Of course, there is a lot of other good advice out there on the internet that you should be reading, and I highly recommend doing your research before embarking on a serious networking quest.

I will leave you with another potentially useful tip: cold calling (or emailing) works with surprisingly high frequency. If there is someone you want to reach, without the pathway or the time to get to them, why not give it a try?

Feel free to ask questions, and let me know how these steps worked for you!