Networking for the Desperate
November 22, 2011 1:26 PM   Subscribe

With very little to offer, how can I network more effectively?

A little background: I'm a 2010 college grad with only a little freelancing experience, a couple of internships, and half a year's work at a bookstore under my belt. I'm interested and have the most experience in writing and editorial work, with some basic administrative and research skills. My target industries are either publishing or nonprofits. (Would like to do journalism, too, but I'm too depressed by the chances at getting something there that I've shied away.)

I've been applying like crazy to different entry-level jobs, and have gotten a few interviews, but I fear I can no longer avoid the bear that is networking. I have networked moderately over the past year, mainly through friends or occasionally contacts of friends. But I think, since I recently quit my job to focus on applying full-time, it's time I go for broke.

My primary resource is my university's alumni networking database, which people opt into, implying that they want to network. When I try to contact people in my target industries, however, I get depressingly minimal results. Having been coached by career advisers from my school in the etiquette of networking, I feel okay about the style and approach I am using. I would guess that I haven't gotten responses because: (1) people are busy, (2) they don't know me personally and won't really be held accountable for ignoring my attempts to reach out, and (3) as a recent grad, I have very little to offer in return for help... just appreciation. Despite experience that I'm proud of, I feel a bit like a charity case.

How can I better make myself someone people are interested in helping? People with jobs, on the other side of the river -- what makes you want to help people that may be younger and less experienced in your specific industry? What sort of approaches appeal to you, and what annoys the hell out of you?

I'm already a bit awkward in a business-y social setting, given that I typically rely on self-deprecation and humor to attract people and feel automatically a little disingenuous with the song-and-dance of networking when the reality is that I pretty urgently need a job. I'm running out of preliminary questions to ask about industries that I now know a fair amount about.

I managed to have some success last week with a friend of one of my acquaintances, a woman who immediately agreed to meet with me for coffee, looked at my resume, and said she would help me make several introductions with other people she knows in nonprofit fields. It was so direct and helpful, I nearly cried with gratitude.

This was the result of an introduction from our mutual friend, but how can I get this kind of response more frequently? Should I completely give up on contacting people I don't know, even if they've opted into a networking system?
posted by aintthattheway to Work & Money (10 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: At the end of every meeting you have, ask who else you should be talking to. Really try to get at least two names out of it. Then ask if they will intro. If they will not, that is ok too.

If you get at least two reasonable names out of every meeting, you will soon be super booked. Someone will appreciate your tenacity.

The networking path is successful precisely because it is hard and a little uncomfortable at first. If everyone did it, it would quickly lose its zest.

Ask everyone about themselves, what they are doing, what they plan to do, why they are doing it. Only after someone is done talking about themselves should you get to why you are there (which is to learn more about what is happening in your field in your area).

Who else is doing this in town?
Who else do you think I should be speaking with?
Do you have any advice for how I could learn more?
How have you seen people enter this space?

These questions get more pointed and everyone at the table knows what is going on. You just need to get in front of more people. Eventually, they will mention a name of someone you have already met and you say "yes, I met with him/her last week, they were really helpful" and all of a sudden you start looking like the expert...

You just need to play the game a little. That is the path of righteousness.
posted by milqman at 1:53 PM on November 22, 2011 [6 favorites]

Post an generic version of the letter you're using to introduce yourself and begin the process. If you're not getting responses, the problem likely starts there.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:40 PM on November 22, 2011

I typically rely on self-deprecation and humor to attract people and feel automatically a little disingenuous with the song-and-dance of networking when the reality is that I pretty urgently need a job. I'm running out of preliminary questions to ask about industries that I now know a fair amount about.

milq already covered the reaching out part, but I'm going to address this part here. As someone who also tends to be self-effacing, believe me, I know it's hard, but you have to stop with the self-deprecation. You don't have to sound like you're the Second Coming or anything, but you should check your tone and stay positive, stay proud of what you've done (can you enumerate some accomplishments in your jobs, not just "I did x and y"?) and sound proud of it and who you are.

These people don't know you, you have only a tenuous relationship with them, and if you have to fake it til you make it, then do that, because if you come off sounding uncertain and sheepish, you're shooting yourself in the head with the loaded gun of self-deprecation.

If you're running out of preliminary questions - move onto advanced ones! Find some pro bono project in your new field to pour your energy into, and reach out and ask people about those more challenging questions. It shows initiative and will give you something to show while you're still looking.
posted by canine epigram at 2:41 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you are not getting initial results and here is what I did a few years ago to get strangers to reply to my info interview requests (search my other responses if you need more details, I've mentioned this quite a few times on the green, including a recent question that someone asked):

• Make your intro letter brief (they are busy), but tell them what you have in common (I am also from U of X and also want to get into your industry).
• Tell them what you want them to do and put a cap/limit on it. Make it easy for them (so in my letters, I stated "would you be willing to (your choice) answer a few questions by email, meet for 30 minutes max, or have a phone call for30minutes max?

Also, along the lines of what milqman said, I usually ended my meetings with "who else would you recommend that I speak with?" and took the contact info down.

Don't stop with just the database. I googled "city" plus "job title" plus "other factor" to find people. One more place (or places) too look: Are there forums for your dream job? (I posted me "I'd like to have info interview"s on one and got responses. Have you checked out the LinkedIn groups? Watch the questions and post questions and you could even ask if people would be willing to share info with you, too.

By the way, don't worry about the ones ignoring you (they are probably busy and forgot about it). You only need to worry about the people who answer. Even if 100 ignore you, the few who do will answer your questions.

Also, after seeing your profile (Chicago?), assuming that writing/research is a job area that you want to do, too -- in Chicago, check out medical writing.There are some jobs that will hire people with an undergrad degree (and now is the busy season), but you have to take a writing test. I can probably point you to the names of some companies there if you want to go that route, too.
posted by Wolfster at 2:44 PM on November 22, 2011

My networking assistance is pretty much limited to people who are friends, or friends of friends. I think the whole idea of "cold calling a total stranger" as networking is probably oversold -- most strangers aren't going to want to help a total newbie. You need to have SOME kind of connection, that's why it's called "networking"! So what you're experiencing -- that your mutual friend was most helpful -- is totally normal. Personally, I almost never respond to cold calls. The ONLY exception is if the kid seems exceedingly qualified or really similar to me in interests and experience. In that scenario, I can both be more helpful (because I know the career path) and it sort of appeals to my vanity (I can help out the superstar!)

Also, are you contacting high-level people, or entry-level people in your networking? It actually makes more sense for you to contact entry-level folks, because they're the ones who know what it takes to get hired at your same level at this moment in time. Because they're younger, they might also be more willing to respond to cold calls (it's more novel to them to be in that position; they might be flattered.) It's kind of a fantasy to think that you're going to cold call somebody with hiring power and they'll be convinced to hire you.

Finally, you should try to make actual contacts and build your network by volunteering at nonprofits, or by getting training in specific things they need (e.g., database management for development, or grant writing).
posted by yarly at 3:03 PM on November 22, 2011

you've gotten some great advice so far -- i'll add that you should make sure to do targeted research on whoever you are networking with and their company/organization. i've had the best networking conversations when i come in with knowledgeable questions to ask about specific stuff their company is working on. i usually comb through the company's website before i go to a meeting. and it doesn't take much -- a few direct/detailed questions about current work usually gets someone rolling and at the same time they are impressed with your knowledge. plus it's way less awkward to talk about them than it is to talk about you!
posted by nanhey at 6:55 PM on November 22, 2011

People will more easily talk to you if you make it easy for them to do so. The tough part about networking is that it is similar to dating - numbers and circumstance. Numbers are "easy" to knock out, just go to every single event and meetup and just talk to people. It's hard. But with practice, it gets easier.

Circumstance is harder. Be more approachable in general. It's certainly more rare, but circumstance sometimes lets you network when you least expect it. Like at a bar, the supermarket, waiting in line at the post office, etc.

Smile, and be friendly. Be interested in other people -- I would try to lose some of that deprecation, because a confident person is easier to talk to than a pushover. It's good to have a bit of humor and be modest, but don't give the impression to someone else that you aren't confident in your skills. It gives them less of an impression to take you seriously.

Be brave. There's a lot of dead-ends in hopeful people you talk to, but you have to tough it out. Sometimes networking takes years. Example: I had a co-worker at a job I had right out of college. He was an interesting and nice fellow, but he was working a low end job. But I still twitter followed him, and he rose through the ranks and eventually became a high manager in a sector of a notable tech company. Eventually he posted that he needed a contractor for a project he was working on and I responded. Just simply that we trusted each other because he merely knew who I was from the job got me the work where I wouldn't have gotten anywhere else.

Be curious. People love talking about themselves. Don't think you have anything to offer them. You can offer them an interesting conversation.

And some of my personal advice. The world is small. Don't burn bridges. When someone might have cut you off, just forget about it. Sometimes they happen to be jerks, sometimes they are genuinely busy and you have the opportunity to reconnect at a later time (or not).
posted by xtine at 7:17 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work for a nonprofit and a significant portion of my job involves writing/editing, so I'll address this from that perspective.

First off, I'm not sure how successful your type of networking ever is, although I applaud your tenacity. I've gotten most of my jobs through networking, but it has always been through people who knew me and were willing to vouch for me. I would certainly respond if someone like you "cold-emailed" me but, honestly, it would probably only result in a solid lead if I knew of a relevant position open right that moment, and I'm not sure if I'd vouch for someone I only knew through an informational interview.

Second, I wonder if you're framing your experience/professional identity in the most effective way when dealing with nonprofits. Even though I probably spend about 60-70% of my time writing and editing, my job is not considered a "writing" job. Most nonprofits don't really seem to think in terms of "writing/editing" jobs except for maybe grant-writing positions or, with really large groups who, for instance, produce publications.

That's not to say that there aren't writing/editing-heavy positions at non-profits. Communications officers/press staff obviously need to be able to write well, as do many development staff and policy people. But you won't get a development job by pitching yourself as a writer - you need to frame yourself as a fundraiser (or aspiring fundraiser in your case) with strong writing skills, if that makes sense. And similarly, if you reach out to people with these types of jobs as a "fellow writer/editor," they might think you're barking up the wrong tree.

I know that might be frustrating advice, since you're just starting out and you're probably not sure exactly what kind of work you want to do. Honestly, I'd suggest getting a part-time internship with the kind of organization you'd like to work for and develop relationships there. Be reliable (seriously, you have no idea how valuable reliable interns are at a non-profit) and be friendly and curious with people in different departments. See what kind of work they do and think about if you'd like to do that too. Once you're at a non-profit, you'll have access to the "young non-profit types" social scene (happy hours, etc) which is honestly the best way to network. I know this takes up valuable job-seeking time, but I honestly think it would be a lot more effective than your current approach.
posted by lunasol at 8:53 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've got to just put this out there: I have a job at a company that many people really, really want to work for. I'm sure I know people who would like to apply there but feel weird asking me for a reference. I've been there! I once wanted a job at this company and did not feel comfortable asking friends for a reference either. Luckily someone went behind my back and recommended me anyway!

I would be thrilled to give a reference. Informational interview? Of course! And I would be delighted to help coach you for your interview! Do you know how great it feels to know someone got a job they really wanted in part because of you? It's an amazing feeling! And, sure, there are times when I'm just too busy to help, but ping me again a week later! Why not? If I'm too busy, I won't respond. I'm not offended that you tried.

Look, anyone sensible in this world knows there are times you're up and times you're down. When you're up, it only makes sense to help other people up so they'll help you when you're down. Don't worry about not having anything to offer; that won't last forever. What will last is the network you build of people you'd help because at one point, they'd helped you, and vice versa. Those bonds can last a lifetime.

I just get really sad when I meet young people who think networking is all about what they have to offer. The connections you're making are longer term than that, and even if you never help anyone you've networked with, some of them definitely feel great about having helped you. I love mentoring and advising younger people. It's one of my favorite things about having my job. If you were in my industry I would be reaching out to you even harder. As it stands there are probably people like me in your industry too.

I know my enthusiasm is totally over the top! But I totally mean it! Don't feel bad!
posted by troublesome at 11:12 PM on November 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the insight! I do think I'm going to focus on going through friends of friends (etc.) rather than try much to contact people I don't know, given that yarly's response is probably widely shared. Won't give up on it completely, though.

It is nice to hear that some people appreciate tenacity... that alone is inspiring. :)
posted by aintthattheway at 6:29 AM on November 23, 2011

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