If you want to get ahead in this world, you have to network. Networking helps build confidence, connects you with like-minded professionals, and, if all goes well, networking can help improve your business's bottom line. But are you doing the best you can do as a mover and shaker? Take a look at these networking tips for pros under age 40.
1. Muster up the Confidence to Go it Alone
There's always safety in numbers of course, but one of the big problems with going to a networking event with a friend or coworker is that you'll tend to stick together instead of branching off on your own, thereby limiting your exposure to other networkers. Instead, think of networking like those times when your teacher told you to partner up with someone you didn't know so well. There was a reason behind that — so you wouldn't dilly-dally with your BFF, and instead give you a chance to make a new friend. Networking is just like that, but all grown-up. And since you're an adult, be an adult about it — try going to the networking event alone and see what happens.
"Some of the most beneficial and lasting networking I've done has tended to share one common theme: I've been on my own at the conference or event," says Jaime Netzer, content editor of The Zebra. "So often, I'll get introductions via coworkers, or head to industry-type events with friends. But if you can push yourself to go alone — and can handle those first few moments of feeling awkward and trying to figure out what to do with your hands — you'll find that they're totally worth it."
2. Pay Attention to the Younger Generation
I daresay that early on I was a victim to thinking very narrowly and only wanting to make contacts with people who were already in high places — while completely disregarding those who were on their way but not quite there yet. It's a common networking faux pas that will not only limit your professional potential, but could also make you come off like a jerk.
Dani Pascarella, 27-year-old founder and CEO of millennial personal finance and career site Invibed, reminds us to show some love to the little people.
"Invite new analysts to coffee and give them advice. Help college students get their foot in the door at your company. Be a mentor. Do whatever you can to help others," she says. "Most people ignore younger talent and focus on networking with really senior people. But I can't tell you how many of the people I helped early in their careers that went on to be wildly successful. And those people were always willing to help me any way they could because I helped them early on, when most others were ignoring them."
3. Don't Be Afraid to Ask for a Meeting
Do you want a meeting with an influencer, someone with whom you think it would be beneficial (hopefully mutually) to be connected? Make the first move. As my mother always told me, the worst thing they can say is "no," but you won't know until you ask.
"Don't ever be afraid to ask someone to meet you for a coffee — I don't care how important you think they are," Pascarella says. "If you don't ask, you'll never get the opportunity. If you ask, at least you have a shot. And don't take things personally if they say 'no.' There are three types of people in the world of networking: people who love it, people who don't, and people who only participate if there's something in it for them. Each person's attitude towards networking plays a much larger role in whether they agree to meet with you than anything you could have said or done."
On the flip side, Ryan Modesto, managing partner at investment research firm 5i Research, suggests accepting any and all invitations from other professionals to meet. Because, well, you don't like to be told "no," do you? Neither do they.
"You never know where a contact/connection may lead, so if you have a chance to do a coffee with someone more established, take it," he says. "Even if they can't help you directly, they may be able to pass you on to someone else who can help. This includes family, friends, friends of friends, etc."
4. Just Don't Ask for the Other Person's Help Too Soon
At this point you've got several meetings set up and you're excited. SO many opportunities on the horizon. While you might be chomping at the bit to turn these connections into something more substantial — like a profit — don't jump the gun. Nobody, in business or otherwise, likes to feel used. Let the relationship develop deeper and organically take its course. Push too soon and you could start to earn a reputation that will only work against you.
"Networking is not about you; it's about finding out about the other person, perhaps even uncovering what you can do for them," motivational speaker Barry Maher says. "It's about building some sort of relationship — even if it's a quick and very short-term relationship — before trying to find out what they might be able to do for you. Without that relationship, you're not networking; you're cold calling, and there's no more reason for that person to help you than any other stranger they might come across on the street."
5. Remember to Share, Not Sell
This sort of goes hand-in-hand with not asking for your new contact's help too soon, so remember that this relationship you're building is supposed to be one of mutual benefit. Avoid allowing it to teeter too far to your side by keeping a focus on sharing aspects of your career opposed to selling them. There's a difference — one of them is genuine; the other isn't.
"For anyone networking, I suggest not being too pushy. Share; don't sell," says media relations and social media specialist Christina Nicholson. We all have our personal reasons for networking, but we cannot focus on those reasons entirely. Don't act like a stereotypical used car salesman. Instead, be professional, but personal too."
6. Try Your Hand at "Sweatworking"
Personally, I've been on social sports teams for nearly a decade — kickball, dodgeball, bowling, trivia, and more — and I highly recommend these activities to help build your contact base. But keep in mind that the main focus is not professional networking — unless it's a business team, of course — so don't make it such. Rest assured, however, that over the weeks of play you'll inevitably talk about what you do as a career and sometimes there's a synergy that comes out of it.
Career and life coach Jenn DeWall agrees.
"Take networking from the bar to the outdoors or a gym," she says. "By doing a physical activity or shared experience you can help create more meaningful relationships. The shared experience can also break the ice helping conversations smooth more easily, which can build confidence for both extroverts and introverts. For Millennials, this is especially effective as it reduces perceived too pushy or formal networking atmospheres that they feel they are not able to truly be themselves or authentic.."
7. Wear an Article of Clothing That's Memorable
Another one of my favorite — and very easy — networking tactics is to wear clothing that makes an impression. (A good impression, of course. Don't show up looking like a clown, please.) When done well, your standout article of clothing is an icebreaker and a confidence booster simultaneously.
Jenna Elkins is a media relations coordinator for TechnologyAdvice, and she's familiar with this strategy.
"Don't over do it by wearing something bright head-to-toe," she says, "but instead wear something small like bright shoes or a unique scarf. This is a great way for people to notice you and start small talk by mentioning your article of clothing."
While Jenna's advice applies to women, career expert Allan Ageman didn't forget about all you dapper gents out there.
"It can be difficult to keep track of all the people you meet at a networking event, and as important as it is for you to remember you new acquaintances, it's equally important that they remember you," he says. "Wear something identifiable but still professional, such as a brightly colored blouse or polka dot bow tie."
8. Sit Near the Bar if You Lack the Confidence to Approach Others
This advice to stake a claim near the bar doesn't mean that you should start throwing back cold ones like it's Super Bowl Sunday. Order one drink, stand there, and sip on it. This tactic is to help those of you who aren't outwardly confident enough to approach strangers by taking a passive approach to networking and letting the conversation come to you.
Elkins explains how this works more in depth.
"Generally, if someone wants to be excused from the person they are networking with, many times the bar is a place many people head to when wanting to switch it up a bit," she says. "One way to strike up a conversation with the networkers who visit the bar is by simply introducing yourself. Most of the time people spend a few minutes waiting for their drink, so this is a great time to make small talk that could turn into a longer conversation. Just don't stay at the bar for too long — you don't want to give people the wrong impression."
9. Try Pre-Networking to Break Down a Few Barriers
Another tactic that can help ease the awkwardness of approaching and meeting strangers at an event is to establish contact beforehand. Social media gives you all the tools to do this in order to make the actual event more comfortable — and give you an edge up on other networkers.
"Still not feeling confident?" Ageman asks. "Check out the Facebook group or online event page to see who else will be attending. Try looking them up on LinkedIn and connecting with them prior to the event. Having a short conversation with people beforehand can make you feel more confident at the event."
10. Always, Always, Always Follow Up
And finally, let's not forget our post-networking manners. If you've met someone — doesn't matter who they are or what they do — it's wise to follow up afterward with a quick "Nice to meet you!"' memo via email. You'll solidify your status as a consummate professional via this practice, and the recipients will remember you more than most of the other dozen or so people with whom they may have chatted the day before. One chat near the bar does not a business relationship make. You have to cultivate the relationship, and a message about what a pleasure it was to meet a person is the perfect way to continue.
Read next: Simple Ways to Master the Art of Networking
More From Wise Bread: