How Does This Networking Thing Work?

by Kiersten Bryant, former Head Editor, INALJ California
previously published 10/30/13

How Does This Networking Thing Work?

kiersten bryantI will be attending a library conference soon and have been looking for advice on how to network at these events. I currently work in the apparel industry in a position that is in no way related to the library/information field so when attending library conferences I always feel like a poser. This feeling of not belonging makes my already introverted self, withdraw even more. I go to these conferences to learn about what is trending in the industry, but I also go to meet people working in the information industry and expand my limited network further into this field. What ends up happening is that I learn a lot from all of the presentations I attend, but I barely talk to anybody! Not exactly successful in accomplishing my goals. So this time I’m going to try a little harder. To prepare I’ve been reading some articles that offer advice on how to network during a conference and how to maintain the new connections you have made after the conference is over.

In an article titled “I Think I’m Networking, Now What?” on the Quickbase/Intuit blog, Allison Green of Ask a Manager offers the following helpful advice about how to approach the idea of networking: “Networking goes best when you decide that you’re really in just to get to know new people who might have similar or complementary interests to your own. When you decide to be genuinely interested in someone as a person – not for what they can do for you, but simply in who they are, and perhaps in how you might be able to be helpful to them – the nature of the experience changes.” Instead of striking up a conversation with the intention of getting something from the person I’m talking to I can take an approach that I’m much more comfortable with, which is just making conversation as if I were at a party talking casually to the person standing next to me. I often worry that the people I talk to at conferences think that I have an ulterior motive for speaking to them, making for awkward conversations. If I let a conversation develop and evolve naturally it will go much smoother. In the same blog post author Eva Rykrsmith advises that “You don’t want to be doing most of the talking, so get the flow of conversation going at the beginning by asking them open-ended questions and then respond back with your thoughts, opinions, and experiences.” As an introvert I prefer to let someone else to do most of the talking while I listen, so this piece of advice should be easy for me to follow.

A humorous piece of self-reflection written by Tess McCarthy on the SLIS Connect blog titled “Networking 101 or Mistakes I Made Networking The Other Night” provides some tips about networking based on what the author feels like she did wrong at an industry mixer.  McCarthy echoes the advice of Green and Rykrsmith suggesting that one should “Find common ground” to make conversations with strangers at these events less forced; and to practice your listening skills, in her words “Roll with them punches until the bell rings.” After reading McCarthy’s blog post I turned to WikiHow to see what words of wisdom they could offer me about networking like a pro. The article, aptly titled, “How to Network at a Conference” has some great advice about how to use a conference to expand your network by making connections with the people that will be presenting at the conference. The author recommends doing research on the presenters and institutions that you’re interested in before you got to the conference, then emailing them to make that first introduction. Once you’ve emailed them, and hopefully they have responded, you have an easy conversation starter for when you see them at the conference. The article goes on to give more helpful advice, including everyone’s favorite – be a good listener, in addition to “learn how to excuse yourself gracefully” when you realize that the presenter is not the right contact for you, or if you sense that the person is not really interested in speaking with you.

The work of networking doesn’t end after the conference is over. In order to make the new connections you made matter you have to maintain them. The article “8 Steps To Build Relationships After A Networking Event” offers some ideas on what to do to turn the connections you made at a conference into relationships that will continue beyond the conference. One of the steps is to sort through the business cards you received and make notes on the cards to remind yourself of the conversations you had with each person. Another step is to follow-up with the people you meet using social media tools like LinkedIn, and to comment on their blogs if possible.

Although I’m an introvert, I am a fairly social person, and I do like talking to people, but at library conferences I feel like I’m going to be found out as an imposter because I don’t currently work in the industry. After reading these articles I realize that when the pressure of getting something beneficial for you is removed, or the need to sell yourself is temporarily ignored, it’s much easier to view networking as a way to get to know someone else and make personal connections that can be professionally beneficial later on. The conversations do not have to only be about work, because we all have other things in common. I hope to leave the next conference I attend feeling like I made some lasting connections, but if not, at least I will have learned a lot!

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