Whether you’re looking for new clients or making a complete career change, professional contacts are key. Connecting with people can help expand your business, explore career pivots, open up opportunities for collaboration, or even just set you up with some friends to talk shop and troubleshoot your strategies.
The business world is chock-full of networking events, ranging from short meet-ups to week-long conferences, and with the changing times, the etiquette of networking is always changing. The thickness of business cards have become far less important; your social media platforms much more so.
To put together this list of underrated networking ideas, Stacker collected advice from CEOs, artists, creative thinkers, and thought leaders, as well as references from books and articles on business, leadership, and personal development. Some tips will be new, unexpected, and counterintuitive. Others are undersung pieces of advice you may have heard before, and perhaps ignored. Read on, then try applying one, a dozen or all 50, and watch your network grow.
There’s no such thing as fashionably late in a networking context. Arrive after everyone else, and you’ll have a tough time breaking into newly formed circles of conversation. It’s best to arrive early and introduce yourself to the other early birds looking for someone to talk to. Best of all, the start of the event is a great time to meet the host, who can be the best person to connect you to others.
You’ve heard the adage: Dress for the job you want. The same applies to networking—dress how you want to be perceived, whether that’s CEO, marketing expert, or creative upstart. And don’t be afraid to stick out a little. A colorful, tasteful tie or scarf can be a great conversation starter and make you more memorable.
All conversations have to be initiated by someone, so why not be the person who breaks the ice? Instead of waiting around for another person to say hello, start the introductions yourself. People will be glad you did.
A wingman or woman can be comforting to chat with at an event full of strangers, but if you stick by your friends all night, you’ll miss out on opportunities to make new contacts. Venturing out on your own will compel you to talk to new people, and expand your business posse.
What do you do? What are you working on? Surprisingly, many people at networking parties get tongue-tied—or conversely, way too ramble-prone—when asked simple questions. Do a little pre-event planning to come up with a short, but sweet sentence or two that quickly explains what you’re about.
Introduce yourself with an anecdote that resonates, says marketing and communications executive Kat Krieger. Try telling a quick story about what you love or what you’re working on. Just make sure the story’s brief, so you don’t come across as an attention hog.
Don’t park yourself in the back corner of the room if your goal is to meet people. Simply putting yourself where the people are will invite conversation. Try hanging out at the bar, by a busy door, or anywhere where people are milling about, and let the talking begin.
If you see people—who haven’t read this article—standing in an empty spot by themselves, go over and introduce yourself. This tactic is a lot easier than trying to break into a group already in conversation. Plus, the person you seek out will appreciate your friendliness, and might even be the connection you’re looking for.
Had a disappointing networking event? Don’t give up so fast. Keep going back, and people will start recognizing you and naturally become friendlier. You’ll start feeling more comfortable, too.
If you’re shy about beginning conversations, volunteering is a great way to get people to start conversations with you. Help out at an event, and you’ll talk with attendees as you greet them, check them in, or answer questions. After you’ve helped them with something—even if it’s something as simple as handing them drink tickets—they’ll naturally want to help you.
Feeling alone and awkward? Try pretending you’re the host of the event, and greet people warmly as they come in. Focusing on the comfort of others will keep you from dwelling on your own self-consciousness, and help make you some new acquaintances.
Networking organizers are often great super-connectors, so introducing yourself to them is a great way of joining their mental rolodexes and and real-life networks alike. Make sure to give the hosts kudos for putting the event together when you do so. Following the first tip and arriving early or on-time will make this easier!
Why stop at thanking the host when you can become the host and get the thanks yourself? Once you have established a network of your own, expand it by organizing your own events and tailor them to bring in the new connections you’re looking for.
Not ready to put together an entire event? Another easy way of getting people to come up to you is by becoming part of an existing one. Offer to give a workshop on a relevant topic, or pitch yourself to speak on a subject you know well. After your spiel, share your contact info and invite people to ask questions in order to find new mentees and collaborators.
Yes, have a short intro about yourself, but don’t expand it into a one-person show. No one enjoys hanging out with people who only talk about themselves. Instead, focus on learning about others by asking questions.
Once you ask those questions, “actually listen to the answers,” as entrepreneur John Rampton advises. Showing genuine interest in others will draw them to you naturally. Listening is also a great way of learning—both to find out who you might best connect with and to come up with new ideas for whatever you’re working on.
People love hearing their names. It makes them feel recognized, connected and, well, remembered. This is why so many successful politicians are known for having a strong memory for names. If you think your memory is hopeless, don’t despair; remembering is a skill that can be learned. Forbes has five tips to get you started.
Work on remembering names, but don’t expect your brain to remember everything you’ve learned about the people you’ve met during a busy night of networking. Post-event, jot down some quick notes about the people you’ve met—especially the ones you want to reconnect with. Google contacts’ notes section works well for this. The practice will make it easier for you to follow up with your new connections.
A simple smile can go a long way. “Not only does smiling make it easier for people to connect with you because you are more open and welcoming, it also helps them remember you—and your company,” says Melani Deyto, marketing expert and a member of the Forbes Communications Council.
Eye contact is an important skill in public speaking, and one that applies well to more informal situations, too. Why is eye contact powerful? “You are simultaneously being assertive and empathetic,” points out speech and presentation coach Sims Wyeth. Practice meeting people’s eyes during moments in conversation to make better connections.
Why do you want to network? Is it to drum up more business? Find a collaborator? Just make new friends? Having clear goals before an event will make it easier for you to fulfill them. If you’re hoping to make connections with specific people, do some research, as career and branding expert Hannah Morgan recommends. Find out what they’re doing, writing, or tweeting about to give yourself some conversation starters.
Planning to make 20 new connections during a two-hour networking happy hour? Approaching a networking event like a speed-dating marathon will leave you exhausted and unable to remember important details, like what the people you met do and how you might help each other. Besides, if you set a small, easily reachable goal—like meeting one or two people—you’re more likely to succeed, feel like a winner, and be more excited about attending future events.
Instead of focusing on the number of people you meet, put your attention instead on the quality of your connections. A meaningful conversation or two with a few people who share your interests is more likely to lead to rich, long-term relationships and partnerships—much more so than a dozen superficial business card exchanges.
There’s nothing wrong with having a few business cards in your wallet or purse in case people ask for them, but don’t be the card-pusher that gives one out with every handshake. Papering the event with your business cards will just make you come across as overly eager, or even annoying.
While having goals for a networking event can give you a sense of focus, don’t get so wrapped up in meeting a specific type of person or drumming up clients that you start assessing everyone at the party based on what they can or can’t do for you. Clients, business partners, and friends often come from unexpected beginnings, so be open and curious about everyone you meet.
Networking events can be exhausting, so go easy on yourself. “Instead of committing to stay for the duration of an event, tell yourself you'll only hang out for an hour, or some other chunk of time you're comfortable with,” advises etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore. Try staying just long enough that it still seems like a fun and productive time.
To motivate yourself to reach your networking goal, whether that’s simply attending an event or meeting three people, plan a small winner’s prize for yourself. Treat yourself to a post-networking dessert or simply permission to leave the event early to watch your favorite TV show at home. You’ll start connecting your networking efforts to happy treats, and gain more motivation to keep up the efforts to connect.
Resist the temptation to check your email while at a networking event. It’ll keep you from making new real-life connections, and you may come across as distant or rude if you start texting while in a conversation circle. Focus on the people in front of you instead, and save the social media updates for after the event.
Met people you want to add to your network? Find them on their preferred platforms, and start following and friending. In many ways, social media profiles are the new business cards, as well as a more effective way of keeping in touch long-term than a rectangular piece of paper.
Just as you would respond to a person in a real-life conversation, take the time to respond to what people say on social media platforms. People generally use social media as a mouthpiece. Be the person who reads and replies to others to enrich your connections, and grow your network.
PR and social media expert Catriona Pollard has a few tips for becoming a standout networker on LinkedIn: Keep your profile updated, connect quickly online with new people you meet in real life, and demonstrate your knowledge via high-quality content.
Are real-life networking events simply not your style? Come up with an online networking plan. Tracy Darchini, author of “Forward Thinking Advantage,” has 10 reasons why online networking might work better for you in this day and age—although she too recommends cementing the connection via a real-life meeting once an initial digital connection has been made.
Ask not what other networkers can do for you, but what you can do for your fellow networker. That’s what millennial career coach Ashley Stahl advises: “While you never need to overextend yourself, always keep your ears open for an opportunity to be of service.” Doing good deeds, after all, will make people want to return the favor.
Networking guru Darrah Brustein suggests helping others find the people they’re looking for. “If you are willing to share your contacts and resources, others will be more likely to help you as well.”
Forbes columnist Michael Elgan recommends keeping a list of everyone you want to stay in touch with, then contacting one each day, without any agenda beyond catching up. Why? “Without contact, people drift apart.” With contact, people stay in each other’s minds and are more ready and willing to help when an opportunity arises.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—and Juana a dull girl. So even if you’re networking to further your career or company, don’t get so laser-focused on talking shop that you forego opportunities to bond over other common interests, whether they be skiing or Korean-Mexican fusion restaurants. Your biggest business deal next year might end up happening over kimchi tacos in Aspen!
You paid for travel, hotel, and event fees, so you might feel compelled to attend every event at a conference or convention in order to get your money’s worth. But one of the biggest benefits of big events is the opportunity to network. Skip out on the parts of the schedule that don’t strongly interest you, and spend that time on the conference grounds meeting and talking with people.
When Robbie Abed needed to create a professional network from scratch, he took 250 coffee meetings in 400 days. The result: “ I went from being alone to building an active community of people I can always rely on for my career and personal growth.” Try the caffeinated approach yourself, and find your community.
Aha! CEO Brian de Haaff says people too easily overlook the people they already know, like colleagues they work with daily. Take the time to nurture these relationships to grow within the organization, and build lasting bonds.
Another way of leveraging your existing network is asking people you already know to make introductions for you. This will cut out most of the work and discomfort of meeting someone all on your own, as well as give you an “in” with the new people you hope to meet.
If you meet someone selling the same product or service you do, don’t write them off as a frenemy competitor. “Even if we do the same thing, we do it in different ways with our own unique approach,” says Christina Nicholson, an owner of a public relations firm who connects and builds referral relationships with others in the business. Be open to considering ways you can help each other grow.
To build a strong network, you need to build trust. To build trust, you need to always do what you say you’ll do. Promised to email a new acquaintance? Make sure you send a note. Suggested a business lunch? Follow up with a time and place. Once people know you can be counted on, they’ll be more willing to open doors for you.
Especially at the start of a career or after a career pivot, accept all invitations. Be open to meeting anyone and everyone instead of getting too picky about meeting the “right” or most influential people. The people who end up helping you the most might be the people you least expected to be able to help at all.
Feel like you’re always running into the same people at networking events? Change the type of events you go to. An easy way to do this is by looking slightly beyond your field. Tech experts, for example, could try a leadership seminar. The new events will help you expand your skills as well as your network.
If a life pivot has you starting from scratch in a brand-new field, consider looking for a mentor you admire and offering your time and skills in an entry level position or lower. Done right, an adult internship can help you get your bearings and build skills in your new career, as well as allow you to respectfully leverage your mentor’s network.
Don’t just sit and wait for others to get in touch with you, because others might be waiting for you to make the first move. Colleen DeBaise at Entrepreneur recommends following up within 48 hours: “Reference something you discussed, so your contact remembers you.”
An extra step to take when following through is to add an individual touch. Devora Zack, author of “Networking for People Who Hate Networking,” recommends sending an article link, relevant information, or a resource that might be useful to your new acquaintance. “Want to really stand out? Mail a handwritten note,” she advises.
Not all networking events will go well. You might stammer, you might forget names, you might forget your anecdote halfway through telling it. If you have a bad night, know that it happens to everyone, and write it off as what it is: just one bad night. Then, plan to have a better time at the next event.
You can’t bake a cake twice as fast by cranking the oven twice as hot, and you can’t build a network overnight by implementing all 50 of these tips in a day. Good connections take time to nurture and grow, so look at networking as a long game, and enjoy the journey.
Becoming too focused on how many people you’ve met and what they have or haven’t done for you sucks all the fun out of networking. Networking is about relationships, which are never a zero-sum game. Simply make an effort to connect and be of use to others, then trust that the work you’re doing and the people you’re meeting will get you closer to your goals over time. In the meantime, enjoy the new connections you’ve made for what they are. After all, relationships, in and of themselves, are what make life meaningful.