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The key to effective networking is to remember that it’s the action of building relationships, not just collecting people. Here are five ways to help you build stronger connections with your professional network:
1. Network in all directions
When you’re at a networking event, reach out in as many directions as possible. This means reaching out to supposedly “downward” or “lateral” connections as much as you reach upwards.
A lot of people go to networking events and end up looking over the shoulder of the person they’re speaking to because they’re waiting to speak to someone more important. But you never know when a connection who’s not a big shot could help you out, so do your best to focus on getting to know whoever you’re talking to.
Case in point: A colleague of mine got locked out of his office building after hours one evening and needed to get something from his desk. Because he had chatted with a member of the cleaning crew in the past, that person was happy to let him in.
So remember, reaching outside your usual circle could literally open doors.
2. Keep detailed records
Use Evernote or some other system to jot down details about the people you meet. “Paying ridiculous attention” is powerful stuff. If you care enough to write down the names of the person’s spouse or children, their birthday or where they go on vacation, that information can be an excuse to start a conversation down the road—and it shows the person they’re important to you. This strategy is a great example of effective “emotional intelligence” in practice.
Much of communication is reciprocal. If you set out to be friendly and kind, most likely this is what you’ll receive in turn. So if the next time you see your contact, you can ask about their recent ski trip or car purchase, you’ll be building a more solid relationship in no time.
3. Ask for help
Four of the most important words to memorize are “I need your help.”
If you think you’re being too needy by asking for help, you’re probably wrong. Asking for help is putting trust in someone else. Unless that person is some kind of Machiavellian schemer, most people like to help someone in need, even if it may not benefit them that much. Obviously, you don’t ask someone you’ve just met at a networking event to help you move to your next apartment—unless you’ve got tons of audacity—so asking for a small favor is the way to go here.
Don’t believe the myth that networking is annoying to others. And anyhow, what’s the harm in asking? If someone doesn’t help you, you can move on to someone else. Remind yourself that nothing ventured is nothing gained.
4. Find excuses to keep up with your network
Mass emails are a great way to keep others in the loop about what’s going on in your life. My friend Mikey has a large email list of friends he communicates with regularly. Sometimes it’s just a funny YouTube clip or a laptop he saw for a low cost. Even if you’re not in the market for a laptop, you’re still glad that someone you know is sharing information and is looking out for you.
Holiday letters are another way to keep others posted about you. My CPA has an annual letter where he tells his clients about what’s going on with his children, where they took vacation and other major milestones during the year. You’d better believe that letter is the first thing I read when I get my tax packet each February.
This added personal touch helps your clients see you as a person, with interests and hobbies just like them, instead of being a mere cipher only filling the role of what their job title is. Keeping things personal is a surprisingly effective way of connecting with people, and sending these status updates can help lead to better connections in real life.
5. Offer a lagniappe
What the heck is a lagniappe? It’s a Louisiana-French term that means something given away as a bonus or for free.
This could be as simple as a pen with your contact information or an insider tip or piece of information. Attach to an email a postscript that has an article someone would particularly appreciate. Focus on what to give as a “sweetener,” and you’ll start noticing how often others use this tactic successfully.
Try any of these five ideas, and chances are you’ll be on the road to effective connection with your network and creating real dialogue that leads to results.
George L. Mocharko is a communications consultant who lives in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. You can reach out to him on Twitter at twitter.com/George_in_DC or at firstname.lastname@example.org.