A friend of mine recently asked me to put down some of my thoughts on how to more effectively network. Being a natural introvert, networking is not something that’s come easily to me. But after putting some conscious effort into improving my skills, I’m at the point where people are usually quite surprised to discover that I’m an introvert by nature. I’m not an expert on networking by any stretch of the imagination but here’s some tips I’ve gathered over the years:

  • Networking is a technique, not an activity. For too many people, networking feels foreign and forced because they think of networking as a specific activity. The imagine a big group of people who come together to “do networking” and rightfully run away from this image in horror. Networking should never be an activity, it should always be a means to an end rather than an end of itself. You’re always networking in order to achieve something whether it’s to learn background knowledge about an industry, form a contact who you can collaborate with later or trying to recruit someone for a job. Networking is a way to achieve your goals which naturally leads to…
  • Know what you want out of networking. There’s a lot of different things you can get out of networking and there’s a different way of doing it for each goal. At different points in you’re life you will be looking out for different things and you need to adapt your approach to suit. I always keep a rough mental checklist at the back of my head for the types of stuff that I need. For example, a few months ago, I was really interested in swapping concepts and ideas in order to spark a burst of inspiration whereas now, I’m more interested in learning about how I can accelerate my development or opportunities to work with someone. Having that list allows you to direct the conversation to a more productive path.
  • Know your spiel. Your spiel is your way of communicating to other people about who you are. “These are the project I’m working on, this is what I think my job title is, these are some cool things I’ve done in the past, this is what I consider myself an expert on”. After some experience with this, you should be aiming to get the patter down so you can rattle it all off in a smooth fashion. Your spiel is important because it allows other people to know who you are. I’ve been at one time or another been known as “the social networking guy”, “the security guy”, “the identity guy”, “the startup guy” etc. Having an easily attached identity is important because it allows the other person to answer the most important question in their mind:
  • “What can this guy do for me?”. Boiled down, networking is two people coming together so they can both answer this question. Paradoxically, what I believe in is that the best way to answer this question is to flip it around and instead ask “What can I do for you?”*. All the best networkers I’ve ever met were marked by their incredible generosity and the feeling that they genuinely cared about you more than them and that’s what made them great networkings. As a result, I’ve adopted a position where the first question I try to answer when I meet someone is “What is their problem and how can I help them fix it?”. That being said, you only have a certain amount of energy and time and so choose the people you choose to help wisely.
  • Be genuine. People get the impression that networking is this smarmy, insincere post that you need to put on to get ahead. That may be how networking is portrayed in the movies but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Networking is only useful if it’s a genuine effort. You don’t have to enjoy it but you at least have to be sincere about it.
  • The road to the top will be long and hard. A lot of people start out thinking that with the right combination of tricks and diligence, they’ll soon be reaching the inner sanctums in which they will be networking with the true power brokers. Simple mathematics quickly dispels this notion, not everyone can be in the inner sanctum or it wouldn’t be inner anymore. The brutal truth is that you’re only useful to people to the extent that you can provide them value. Networking can help you parley your skills into opportunities but they won’t help a whit unless you do the hard work of developing those skills in the first place.
  • Honor your commitments. If you say you’ll look up something for them, do it. If you say you think you can introduce them to someone, do it. If you tell them you’ll email them, do it. If you don’t think something might be possible, don’t say it is. In any circle small enough to be worth networking into, your reputation will follow you wherever you go so make sure it’s sterling.
  • Always be on. For the serious schmoozers, networking isn’t just a tool, it’s a way of life and it’s integrated into everything they do. If they’re reading the newspaper, they’re thinking about how the news might help one of their friends. If they meet someone at a bar, they’re running their networking stack in the back of their brain. If they’re brushing their teeth… well, they’re probably just brushing their teeth, nobody is that extreme. But there’s a transition point you make from networking being a thing you do to a thing you are and jumping over that gap turns you into a different person. I’m hesitant to say that this is a necessary of even desirable transition but it’s an important one for anyone who’s gone through it.

I don’t put much credence when people say they’re not suited to networking or that it’s not important for them. I think especially for a lot of geeks, there is an almost defensive fear about conscientiously developing the social skills necessary for effective networking as if that diminished their technical credentials in some way. Networking is not some arcane activity or bizarre social ritual, it’s a natural part of human interaction which, like many others, can be greatly improved with some assiduous practice.

* There is a Chinese parable that Hell is to be seated at a giant banquet table filled with all manner of delicious food and yet be unable to taste any of it because each person at the table is equipped only with 6ft long chopsticks. Heaven is the exact same table and the exact same feast, yet everyone is enjoying themselves because they are feeding each other.