The Etiquette of Networking
June 11, 2015 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Teach me how to make the most of this opportunity to network, while avoiding specific pitfalls like drooling on myself or saying dumb nervous things. Difficulty level: I don't currently work in the field, so people are going to be less interested in networking with me than I am with them (unless they are actively seeking a mentee, or open to it).

I just finished day one of a three day conference. The conference is very directly related to the career field into which I plan to transition. I have an advanced degree in said field, as well as volunteer experience; however, I do not currently work or have paid work experience (in said field).

The conference is hosted by one of my dream employers. Several of its current employees are involved in the conference's oversight. Today involved a series of lectures by professionals in the field, an hour for lunch (on site, food is provided and socialization encouraged but honestly unavoidable), and then a conference-wide workshop (there are maybe 200 of us; we are not being broken up into small groups) where everyone is encouraged to crowdsource their knowledge, expertise and research skills to achieve several goals that are meaningful to not only those of us at the conference, but the field and public at large. (It's a somewhat creatively angled field, and more often public sector than private sector.) This "workshop" model, with an hour break for lunch, will continue the next two days.

I'm an introvert; too much social contact for too long - especially when it's in a big group setting - tends to fatigue my mind. And then I either avoid networking opportunities, or I fail to notice them.

The people I am most interested in networking with are the people who are currently employed at the place where the conference is being held. This is because they are among some of the biggest experts in the field, and they also work in the type of positions I'd like to see myself in eventually. (Many of the conference attendees are in academia, or write for media that covers trends and news in the field). Although I value and am still very open to networking opportunities with those individuals, I'd prefer to generate more of my energy toward networking with those who can mentor me or give me advice on how to build my skills/knowledge/resume to become, in the future an ideal candidate for jobs like theirs.

Essentially, I am looking for social hacks that are appropriate to a career conference atmosphere:

How do I approach a person with whom I hope to network? What do I say or ask them to break the ice? What should I not ask them, or not say? (Yes, I already know not to say, "Can you get me a job?".)

How do I toot my own horn (to show that I'm a person with potential, and has genuine interest) without coming across as obnoxious?

How do I gauge their interest level?

And if they do seem interested, when is it polite to ask if we can exchange contact information (email address, phone)?

Once I have their contact info, what are the rules, etiquette and general recommendations for contacting them, and maintaining enough contact that over time I'm not someone they forget?

Bottom line, how do I do all of this without coming across as pushy, desperate, needy?

P.S. I don't use LinkedIn because I don't want to potentially advertise to my current employer that I'm looking to transition to another field; I also just prefer direct email/phone/in-person contact over social networking.
posted by nightrecordings to Work & Money (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
On your last point - YMMV depending on just how paranoid your employer is, but lots of people maintain active LI profiles who are not active candidates.

And I start with this because LI is a wonderful way to maintain low-level contact with people who may not be daily acquaintances, especially if you're a bit introverted.

An advanced degree and volunteer experience in your field is all the context and "right" you need to be at the party, so shake off the subtext that I'm reading that you feel a bit unsure that you have a right to be chatting these people up. That's what conferences like this are FOR.

As for WHAT you talk about --

- ask a speaker follow up questions in a one on one setting on things that interested you.
- ask people about THEMSELVES. For most people, it's their favorite subject.
- when conversation turns to what YOU'VE done, don't exaggerate, but don't sell yourself short. "I'm looking for that first professional opportunity in (field) - so far I have done (volunteer thing, degree).

Asking "do you have a job for me?" is often a bit too direct, but questions like "where should I look?" are not out of line at all.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:52 PM on June 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

It kind of depends on the culture of the industry, but I generally have good luck meeting likeminded and interesting people in the clusters of people talking with presenters after a talk.
As randomkeystrike said, many people like to talk about themselves and their work, so if you can provide an attentive audience, some people that were talking with the presenter may be interested in talking with you after the speaker wanders off.

Additionally, at least in my field, many presenters are encouraged to do some recruiting at conferences, so that might be something to keep an ear out for as you attend talks - I'm used to people leading in with, "I'm so and so, I for for such and such company, we're hiring..."

I'll hook up with random groups that are forming for meals. If there's big name sponsors, they sometimes organize meal expeditions that are good ways to meet people without a lot of social stress.

I'll send a brief e-mail shortly after a conversation where someone seems interested in cultivating a relationship just to cement me in their mind and then a detailed e-mail a week or so after the conference to give them time to get home and caught up on work.
posted by Candleman at 6:44 AM on June 12, 2015

I often say something like 'what brought you here [to the conference]?' (or, just some small talk about the last presenter/food/weather/whatever) but since you want to talk with current employees, I would just keep an eye out for people's nametags--assuming you can see their workplace--and say 'oh, you work for x, that's great, what do you do?' Then you can later say something like 'i work for y right now, but i have a degree in z and i'm really interested in transitioning back into this field.'

Ask for contact info at the end of the conversation, or when someone else comes up to interrupt. Just something like 'could I possibly get your card?'. Ideally you'd hand them yours at this point, but that might work as well if you don't have something separate from your current job. Later (maybe that evening or the next day), send them an invite on LinkedIn.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:49 AM on June 12, 2015

Also, I think the fact that you're currently employed elsewhere is great, because it helps reduce any air of desperation. I think it's good to present your transition as something that you're just interested in doing in an unhurried way, rather than something that you urgently need to do asap.
posted by three_red_balloons at 7:53 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a slight introvert in a network-heavy field -- I like to find a few people early who I like but am not actively trying to network with. When being "on" for networking is tiring me out but I can't retreat to a quiet place, I go find those people. There's no benefit to networking if it wears you out so much you can't follow through or continue networking in the future. As for your questions specifically:

How do I approach a person with whom I hope to network? What do I say or ask them to break the ice?
The approach is basically like going up to anyone at a party.
1) Find someone who isn't in a one-on-one discussion with someone else. Two people might be trying to talk privately and be annoyed by you butting in, but loose groups of people and other single people wandering around seemingly open to conversation are great to go up to. I also tend to avoid big groups where one hotshot is the center of attention -- you won't get good networking if you're seen as just one of many hangers-on.
2) Introduce yourself, make a small, non-complaining comment about the conference itself ("Did you go to the xyz lecture? What did you think?" "Wasn't the snack with lunch good? I always eat too many cookies at these things!") Ask what they do, and be genuinely interested.
3) Do you know the basic range of people's specialties at the conference? Have some general knowledge about what is new, interesting, or considered the "hard problems" of people's work. Once you they've told you a little about their work, ask some insightful questions if you can. Obviously it's hard to be insightful on the spot, but you want to signal that, even though you're an outsider, you've done your homework. Of course, if some of the hot topics in that person's work are embarrassing, don't put them on the spot ("Oh, you wrote a paper with Michael LaCour in grad school? Did he fake data for your project, too?"). I've seriously seen people ask questions in this vein, but making someone defensive just to show you know your stuff isn't going to make them want to talk to you ever again.
4) Don't be afraid to talk about non-work stuff, especially during lunch when the attendees are not specifically trying reach certain goals. Networking and getting jobs is largely about people liking you and thinking they could hang out with you. This is a bit of a craps shoot -- you won't know beforehand that you and Person Y both love Ken Burns or whatever, but if you can make that connection -- so don't try too hard with this. Just let the conversation flow about, say, how you just saw Mad Max and it was awesome, or whatever.
5) Bonus: If people in your field are particularly prestige-oriented and there are some big names at the conference, try to find out beforehand if the person you're approaching is someone who might expect you to know who they are or what they do. And instead of asking them what they do, say that you've heard about their work already and dive in to some thoughtful questions.

How do I toot my own horn (to show that I'm a person with potential, and has genuine interest) without coming across as obnoxious?

1) The best way to toot your horn is to show how you can engage with their work. If you ask good questions, make good comments as you talk about their work, you're half way there.
2) Only bring up your own situation and potential after you've shown interest. Hopefully, the person will start asking questions about yourself (which is a good sign of their being open to knowing you!). Going into a pitch about yourself uninvited and before establishing a rapport can make you seem obnoxious.

How do I gauge their interest level? And if they do seem interested, when is it polite to ask if we can exchange contact information (email address, phone)?

1) Again, let them ask you questions and actually converse with you. If you are peppering them with questions, that's not great. It's even worse if you are monologue-ing. If they are too Busy-And-Important to care about you, this is not the person you want to be dealing with.
2) Ask to exchange contact information at the end of your first conversation: "It was really great to meet you and talk about blablabla. Maybe we could meet up for a drink at the airport before heading home -- want to exchange numbers?" or "I'd love to hear more about the work you are doing. Can I give you my card and get your info?"

Once I have their contact info, what are the rules, etiquette and general recommendations for contacting them, and maintaining enough contact that over time I'm not someone they forget?

1) Contact them, preferably by email, about a week or so after the conference is over, or at least within a couple months. Don't randomly call them up, and don't text. You're not actually friends -- you are colleagues.
2) Ask if you can meet up for an informational interview. You want to talk to them about jobs in their field, what it's like to actually work full time in an organization like theirs, and how one might go about finding a job and what factors to consider in finding the right job for you. You are NOT asking for a job at their office. If you meet over coffee or an inexpensive lunch, it is appropriate to pay (don't say this up front-- just do it when you're there), but if the person is significantly senior to you, don't insist on paying if they want to pay for their own.
3) You don't need to keep in touch that often. Every few months is fine, but if it peters out after you get some help or pointers, that's fine, too. Networking is not mentorship.

Bottom line, how do I do all of this without coming across as pushy, desperate, needy?
Don't obsess over "successfully" networking with any specific person. That said, one thing that helps me is remembering that a lot of people love to help people out in their field. Because of my position, random people who went to my school reach out to me pretty regularly. Even though I know it's just because I'm on a list at the school's career office, I'm impressed that they reached out to a stranger and touched that they've come to me. I seriously work to help them out, because it makes me feel good and important. Assume that's true of the people you talk to, too.
posted by alligatorpear at 8:21 AM on June 12, 2015

Are you staying at a hotel where the other attendees are staying?

Was at a workshop in another city last month, turned out a bunch of people stayed at the same hotel we were in. Ran into them during happy hour at the hotel bar and at breakfast. Shot the breeze, leveraged my analytical/clinical science background, exchanged cards, talked about sailboats and unique cars and motorcycles, and where everyone was from/moving-to.

We ended up with a potential hire, who was moving to the geographical region we're planning on setting up a site, who seemed competent and had highly relevant experience but was not currently in the industry. She's supposed to be in (current) town next week so we arranged an informational interview.

Also ended up with a potential collaborator who had specialized licensing/skill/equipment and got to know a competitor's new hire, and a little more about the competitor.
posted by porpoise at 10:25 AM on June 13, 2015

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