Networking: don't panic!

It's not that painful and you're probably already doing it, says Finbarr Bermingham

The brass clock sunk into the opulent wooden panels doesn't seem to have ticked for an age. The never-ending room is bathed in a horrendous yellow light that would have Edison turning in his grave. The heat, which has been exponentially rising since you arrived, forces you to loosen your tie - not too much mind, you don't want to ruin that nice Double Windsor thatYouTube taught you to do before you left home. The palms of your hands have become soaked in a translucent ectoplasm that suddenly starts appearing on your forehead, which you frantically dab at with a starched-to-cardboard napkin. Your face is reddening to the point of explosion. And what's this? Somebody actually wants to talk to you... how can they look so comfortable... so enthusiastic... so happy to be here?!

If this sounds familiar, then the chances are you don't exactly go weak at the knees at the prospect of networking events. And yet: they're everywhere. A cottage industry of networking - evenings, sessions and bus trips - has sprung up around us making one wonder whether the emphasis on the means has begun to outweigh the end. For many it's become a race to gather the largest stack of business cards or attend the most meet-and-greets.

But if you boil it down to what it actually is - interacting with other human beings in order to make useful connections - you'll realise that we all network in our own way, whether it's consciously or not. Once you start thinking of networking as a natural thing away from contrived dedicated events it becomes much less scary and you'll realise that you're probably not as bad as you initially thought.

Do it right

The trick, then, is to suit yourself. Only attend events you're sure you're interested in and which you think might benefit your career. The best networking events usually aren't called "networking events", so seek out conferences and forums that cover the sector you want to work in. If you possess a genuine interest, the chances are that it won't be so painful to think of questions and to hold a discussion with people at events.

Julia Hobsbawn is the UK's first professor of networking, at Cass Business School. She defines networking as "the gathering and exchange of knowledge and intelligence between people". Note Julia's use of the word "exchange". Networking is by definition interactive, so when you're speaking with people that you feel might be of assistance in your job hunt, don't just throw questions at them: converse. Neil Munz-Jones, the author of The Reluctant Networker, recommends "becoming an expert" so that other people can leverage your knowledge, just as you're leveraging theirs.

Arguably, people spend too much time seeking out new contacts at events or through social networks. People often forget to look a bit closer to home. Think about your current group of contacts: people you know through school, university, part-time employment, or through other family or friends. Most people already have a network established, often without realising it. Perhaps you have friends or family that have worked in the industry you wish to work in? Or perhaps you have second degree contacts who can give you some useful careers advice or be your contact within a bank or firm? At interview stage, being able to drop the name of somebody you know within the company looks like you've done your homework.

Neil Munz-Jones echoes these sentiments, saying: "Don't worry too much about going to networking events where the focus tends to be on meeting new people... why not focus on deepening relationships that you already have by meeting up with people over a coffee, lunch or a beer?" For those that find the concept of networking events unedifying, these people are all the more important to approach. So remember that every situation is a potential networking event and almost everybody is a potentially useful contact, either first-hand or through somebody else they know.

Myths about networking

Neil Munz-Jones, author of The Reluctant Networker helps us debunk some of the most commonly held views on networking

Networking is only for "social butterflies"

You don't need to be an extrovert to network successfully. Most people feel nervous when they're put in front of a roomful of strangers: nerves are natural. The key is to prepare adequately. Perhaps contact the people you wish to speak to before you meet them. Do plenty of research so that you know what you're talking about. The more prepared and confident you are, the less intimidated you'll be.

Networking is all about going to networking events

Networking is a means to an end with lots of different ways to do it, and going to events is just one way of doing so (others are one-to-one meetings, calling people, email, using LinkedIn and other social networking sites).

People only network when they want something

The effective networkers are doing it all the time and spend as much time helping others as they do getting help. Like any sort of social relationship, networking is about give and take, and is not something you switch on and off at will.

Networking is always premeditated

The more natural you can make it, the easier it is. It's often easier to interact with people effectively when you just happen to get chatting. And when you do need something, it's a lot easier to ask for help if you've already built strong networks in an relaxed way.

Networking is time-consuming

There are many different ways to network that are less time-consuming than events and can be done when you have a spare half hour or even less. Email is a really quick way to keep in touch with your network: from a mass email informing everyone of a new role, address or your latest charity-fundraising activity to a more targeted one forwarding on a relevant article saying, "I read this and thought of you... ".

Networking no-nos

We spoke to some of our contacts in the City (who asked to remain anonymous) to get their memories of times when people got networking very, very wrong...

  • "Someone couldn't remember my name after an event and wrote a thank-you email to our generic campus account addressing it 'to the girl with the green eyes, whose name I can't remember'. You should probably write everything down..."
  • "Don't drink too much and ask a banker how much their watch costs..."
  • "Be aware of people's personal space and don't gnaw on a chicken wing while standing far too close to the person you're talking to!"
  • *"An old, fat guy commented on my outfit (suit jacket and jeans so nothing out of the ordinary) saying I looked 'very single'. I told him to f*k off and went home."
  • "A senior member of a mainstream British political party asked me if I was 'tired from the swim over' (I'm Irish), before spending the next half hour staring down my colleague's top."