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Networking strategies for beginners

Image: people in a cafe, talking and looking at their laptops Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/adult-bar-cafe-city-employee-240223/

Networking, man.

Does anyone actually like it? Not at first. Over time, it can become much more comfortable, but for a beginner — it can be completely nerve-wracking. I wanted to write about what I’ve learned about networking to hopefully help combat the anxiety that surrounds it.

If you’re young and inexperienced, this is for you! If you’re an academic looking to jump ship to a non-academic career, this is for you, too! If you’re an experienced worker looking to transition to a new career, welcome! I hope you all find some use out of my experiences.

How do I start?

Here’s what I tell everyone — “You never know who knows whom, so just let your friends and family and acquaintances know you’re looking for professional introductions!” It’s true. I was able to successfully transition from an academic career to User Experience (UX) because I did just that. When I decided on my new career path, I asked my friends and acquaintances if they knew anyone in UX they could introduce me to. I met SO many people that way.

Another option is to use social media. Put a call out on Facebook, Twitter, whatever, saying you’re looking to meet people in your chosen field and would love if your connections could introduce you to people. I guarantee you that you will get at least a couple hits with this type of ask. Oh, and if possible, always ask for a personal introduction via email. You’re less likely to get lost in the shuffle that way.

What if that doesn’t work?

There are many reasons that someone may not be able to use their family or friends to build their network. Maybe they moved to a new area and don’t know people yet, for example. In that case, a great way to meet people in your field is to go to working groups or meetups.

In UX, for example, we have several active UX professionals groups. We have the UX Professionals Association of Minnesota, a Twin Cities UX Meetup, and other related professional groups that hold events around the Twin Cities. Look for those events. Some are free, some cost a nominal fee ($10–20/event), most happen after work and have snacks and built-in networking time. These events often have speakers, too, and are a great way to keep up on trends in the field.

I recommend bringing a handful of cards with you to give to people you meet there. Something with, at minimum, your email and name. You can have your phone number on there, too, but I’ve found most people deal in email in my field.

But groups are scary!

It’s true — a lot of these groups have their regulars who all know each other. This doesn’t mean people are unwilling to talk to new people. Quite the opposite. I get it that crowds can be super intimidating and overwhelming for many people, though, so don’t think you have to rely only on these meetups to meet professionals in your field. Get the card of 1–2 people and then set up a time outside of the event to have coffee or lunch to get to know them.

How do I ask people for their time?

Once you have someone’s email, there are a couple things to keep in mind before you ask for a person’s time. They are going to be doing you a favor, and they are likely pretty busy. You’re likely not the only person asking for their time. In order to make it as easy as possible for them to accept your invitation to coffee or lunch or whatever, make sure you give them 1. your name and where you met/how you got their info, 2. a couple days and times that work for you, and 3. a reason for the meeting.

But don’t I want to defer to their schedule?

Yes, but if you make them think too hard about when they could do a coffee or lunch, they will be more likely to put off responding to you. If you say, “I can do Monday at 3pm, Tuesday at 10am, or Friday from 10am-12pm,” you’re giving them the gift of looking at their calendars with focus and picking a time that works best. You’re reducing their cognitive load! This is a good thing.

What about the reason for the meeting?

Good question! Don’t make it about you. Make it about them. “I’d love to learn more about your day-to-day at XYZ company” or “I’d love to hear how you got into X field!” You can say that you’re looking to change careers or that you’re looking for insight into the field, but leave it at that. You are there to get their perspective and experience on the field, not go to a therapy session.

Oh, also? Do not say “pick your brain.” It sounds gross and sleazy and like you’re trying to get free cognitive labor.

After the meeting

At the end of every meeting, you should ask the person if there is anyone they can think of that you should meet, and then ask them for an introduction. When you get home from the meeting, send an email to the person within 24 hours thanking them for their time and reiterating something you learned from talking with them. And then gently remind them that they promised to introduce you to Jane Doe. When they do send the email intro, make sure you respond, again, within 24 hours, in a reply all to thank the person for the introduction.

What about LinkedIn?

LinkedIn can be an excellent networking tool as well! I want to caution you, though, about trying to connect with people you’ve never met. You can do this, but make sure you add a personal note in your request to connect. Why? Because you are more likely to be accepted and taken seriously if you do this. Who are you? Why do you want to connect? A good message could look like this:

Hi, Abby! I was at the talk you gave recently, and I really enjoyed it! I would love to connect so I can keep up with your speaking schedule.

Or

Hi, Abby! I was told by Alice Jones that you are a great person to know in UX, and I’d love to connect with you!

This is especially important if the person with whom you want to connect is a woman. We tend to get harassed even on LinkedIn, so a personal note showing you’re not a creep can go a long way in helping build good will.

Go build your network!

It takes a LOT of guts to put yourself out there to build your network, but I guarantee you it will be worth the effort. I hope these suggestions are helpful for you!