How to Network Outside of a Networking Event
Upper lip sweat.
It’s the bane of my existence.
I can look as cool as a cucumber everywhere else—I’m talking wearing sunglasses at night, Neil Patrick Harris cool—but everyone in the room still knows I’m a nervous wreck because of that unattractive liquid condensing above my lip…
And this happens every time I go to a formal networking event.
Which is why, though I do still attend these little gatherings every once in a while, I’m much more happy to do my networking elsewhere.
But where else can you network?
Seriously, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that every moment of every day is an opportunity to network.
I am constantly looking for new and interesting career stories. And I am constantly meeting people who have these stories.
I’ve met people at Christmas parties, engagement parties, beach dates, kickbacks, barbecues, bars, high school reunions, even in line at Starbucks. I’m telling you, everywhere.
But there is a difference between meeting someone at a barbecue as opposed to a formal networking event. Because these networking moments are happening in informal situations, the approach is slightly different. You don’t want to miss out on a career-enhancing opportunity, but at the same time you don’t want to be that person who can’t ever relax and just have fun.
So, here are six tips for networking at non-networking events without becoming that person:
- Don’t take anything too seriously—not even your partying
Whatever gathering you’re going to—kickback, barbecue, or whatever—treat it like that. Don’t set out with expectations of meeting an employer, client, or mentor. Hang out with friends, drink a beer, grill a chicken, and chat about that time in middle school when you thought it’d be cool to prank call Tom MacDonald.
At the same time, if you’re not in a setting with just your nearest and dearest friends, you don’t want to let loose too much. No one is going to take anything the blacked out girl dancing on the bar is saying seriously.
And if you do happen to meet someone who is interesting or in your line of work, you’ll want them to think of you as the “cool guy they met at Jim’s” not Jim’s wasted friend who kept slurring, “We should totally talk business! Let’s take another shooooot!”
- Be open to meeting people
Personally, I have a lot of trouble breaking out of my own bubble. I have my group of friends and I stick to it pretty closely. I like interacting with the people I know but don’t feel too comfortable opening up to strangers.
This is not the attitude to have. Trust me. You miss out on a lot when you close yourself off this way.
Ever since I started this job and needed to meet people in different industries and with unique perspectives, I’ve challenged myself to be a lot more open. At this year’s Christmas lunch (my family’s tradition) instead of just introducing myself to my cousin’s new girlfriend, I sat down and asked her all about herself. How did she come to Hawai’i? How did she learn to cook her absolutely DELICIOUS stuffed mushrooms? This conversation turned into one about her career and we ended up scheduling an interview.
Of course, if you happen to meet the world’s most boring person, don’t torture yourself with a “so… do you like weather?” conversation. Just be open to the idea that this new person could be totally cool.
- Keep an ear out for interesting conversation
When you’re at a party or in a bar, you’re not focused on work at all. But that doesn’t mean you should shut off that part of your brain completely. If you happen to hear something related to your interests, don’t be afraid to inquire more about it.
At an engagement party a few weeks ago, I sat a couple of seats down from my friend’s new girlfriend. Even though I was talking about a YouTube video with some friends, I heard her mention that she was working as an occupational therapist in Los Angeles.
At the time I couldn’t tell you what an occupational therapist did. Therapy for people who have occupations, perhaps? So I made a mental note of her comment and later asked her if she wouldn’t mind telling me a bit about what she was doing. This led to a full-on interview that taught me a lot and allowed me to share that knowledge.
- Talk about something other than business
If you happen to overhear something industry-related being said, by all means use that as an introduction. But if you’re headed to a friend’s Halloween party and are introduced to the zombie next to you, don’t start your conversation with, “Hi, I’m Kellen. I write about career options and job search techniques on the AfterCollege Blog. What do you do?”
It’s pretty common to start a conversation at a formal networking event with the question of “What do you do?” but when you’re just at a social gathering, try to start with something else. People are there to have fun.
For example, you might ask the zombie how they know the monster that introduced you or what they made their body wrap out of. Then, let the conversation flow to careers and lives (you’ll usually end up on this topic naturally).
- Express a genuine interest in who they are and/or what they do (not what they can offer)
This goes for all types of networking, but especially when you’re not at a networking event.
Be interested in the people you meet without any expectations. People can tell the difference between when you’re being genuine and when you’re just trying to get something.
Ask questions. Really listen to their answers and respond with more questions that relate to those answers. Don’t try to promote yourself in the conversation. If they ask you about yourself, you should definitely speak highly of what you can do, but don’t go into a conversation with intentions of selling yourself.
- Respectfully ASK to follow-up
If the person that you’re talking to seems happy to continue the conversation, approach the subject of an informational interview. Start the request with how happy you were to meet them and how interested you are in hearing more. Unlike a formal networking event where you’d probably pull out a business card and say something like, “Let’s talk” or “We should talk more at such-and-such time,” in this case you want less of a demand and more of a request.
This is also why it’s nice to have something other than “work talk” to draw on. Mention how cool it was to have met another Giants fan who also really loves accounting or how you can’t believe you both have cats who can open doors.
Then ask if they would be interested in talking a little more about their work. Ask them if you can give them your email address or if you could take theirs.
Homework time! Be brave! Face that upper lip sweat and head to a professional networking event. But also keep in mind that every single person you meet can be a connection both in personal and professional settings. The next time you go out, keep these six tips in mind for meeting and connecting with others in your industry.