When done right, networking is an incredibly valuable investment of every professional's time and effort. It helps us make meaningful business connections, get feedback, and advance our careers. And best of all, it pays significant dividends over time.
So why does it seem so unpleasant sometimes? It can feel fake, it's exhausting, and frankly, standing alone in a sea of unknown faces with nametags and cheese plates can be utterly painful.
But there are ways to make networking less of a chore. It starts with reflecting on your current networking habits and learning where you might be making mistakes. I'm not talking about obvious mistakes, like talking super close to someone's face or not dressing the part. I'm talking about the more subtle mistakes you may not even know you're making.
Here are 13 networking mistakes that could be holding you back from developing meaningful business relationships and creating real value out of them.
13 Networking Mistakes You Need to Stop Making
1) You're waiting to build your network until you need it most.
A lot of people neglect to build their networks until they're desperate -- perhaps they've lost their job, they're looking for a career change, or they're applying to graduate school and need advice or references. It's hard to prioritize networking when you don't have a specific goal you're going after. But if you're constantly doing things to help you build your network -- even when you're gainfully employed -- then it'll be strong when you need it most.
When it comes to networking, it pays to be proactive. Don't wait until fate brings you a new networking opportunity; seek them out yourself.
"Ask a friend who the most interesting person they know is and go meet them. Email a blog author whose content you love with a specific comment or question about his or her work. Reconnect with an old colleague whose work you always admired. Sometimes, these conversations will lead nowhere. But many will generate new ideas, connections, and creativity, so it’s worth the break in the action from your usual busy day," she added.
2) You aren't keeping up your personal brand.
When you network with new people, it's pretty inevitable that they're going to look you up online later to see what your deal is. They'll look at your LinkedIn profile, your Twitter page, and your blog posts. They might even Google you. And when they do, you'll want to have an active, interesting, and thoughtful online presence for them to browse.
That's why, in addition to regularly seeking out new connections, it's also important that you continuously develop your personal brand online. That means keeping your social media profiles (like LinkedIn) updated and regularly posting interesting, relevant articles and commentary to your social media accounts. It also means responding kindly when people message, email, or tweet at you, contributing to your company's blog, and writing guest blog posts for other blogs and publications (like these ones), and getting personal brand exposure through earned media.
3) You're afraid to attend networking events by yourself.
Even extroverts don't like going to networking events and conferences alone. It's straight up anxiety-inducing to stand around by yourself, wondering why everyone else seems to know each other already.
"For a long time, I never wanted to go to networking events by myself," my colleague Amanda Zantal-Wiener told me. "But eventually, I realized two things: 1) When I went with someone I already knew, that ended up restricting the conversations I had; and 2) if I went into the event with the mindset that I'm a person who will start a conversation with anyone, it was really quite effective."
Gaining the confidence to approach people and join in on conversations has a lot to do with simply being prepared. My advice? Approach every event you attend with a game plan, starting with looking through the speaker and/or guest list and identifying the people you'd like to talk with. Then, challenge yourself to connect with each of them. People really are willing to talk to you -- especially if you're the first one to say hello.
4) You don't do your homework.
Preparing for events, conferences, and meetings doesn't just mean coming with a stack of freshly printed business cards. If you know certain people who are attending or speaking at an event whom you know you'll be interested in meeting, then you should do research on them ahead of time. When you do your homework, you can skip the small talk and get right into the meaningful conversation you're looking for in the first place.
"Time is the most valuable resource people can offer you, so respect it," says Burke. "Do your homework on [the person's] title, their background, their email address, their preferred mode of contact -- e.g., never call Dharmesh, he's made it clear he hates the phone -- and their career history. That way, your conversation via email, phone, or in-person can focus on the advice you need help with, the subject matter you'd like to learn more about, or the organization you want to learn more about."
5) You don't follow up with personal messages.
So you go to an event, talk to someone awesome, have a great conversation with them, and exchange business cards before you part ways. Great! But don't call it a day just yet. Unless you follow up with some sort of personal message, says my colleague Aja Frost, then you risk never talking with that person again -- and losing out on a potentially meaningful connection.
That's why you should follow up every great networking conversation with a personalized and thoughtful thank-you message or email. Here are 12 templates for follow-up networking emails that I've personally found super helpful.
Or, you can send something as simple as a short message along with your LinkedIn invitation:
Hi Shannon, it was great meeting you at the happy hour last night! I enjoyed hearing about the design project you're working on. I'm an aspiring designer myself, so I'd love to connect and follow your work."
A message like this gives the recipient both reassurance that you're someone they should have in their network, and a jumping off point to start a discussion.
If the person you spoke with gave you some suggestions for your own project or career, follow up to let her know how that's going -- and, later, whether or not her suggestions panned out.
Pro Tip: Set yourself up for a substantial follow-up conversation by building a bridge to your next exchange before saying goodbye. Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology, suggests asking people what they're working on right now. Take note of their response and mention it when you strike up your next conversation.
If you tend to easily forget small details or are meeting a lot of different people at once, make follow-up easier by (subtly) writing a note or two down on the business cards people give you, or make some notes on your phone.
6) You can't follow up -- because you don't take other people's contact information.
Ever given someone your contact information, but neglected to take theirs? That leaves you depending on them to contact you, rather than the other way around.
That's what my colleague Padraig O'Connor cited as his biggest networking mistake to-date. "Sadly, these busy people would not always get in touch and contact was lost," he told me. Since then, he even goes so far as to open up his own LinkedIn account on his phone and have people find and themselves as a connection right then and there.
"It also saves on data entry," he added. Can't argue with that.
7) You ask the same questions everyone else is asking.
Part of being good at networking is standing out from the crowd. How are you going to do that if you're asking the same old, predictable questions everyone else is asking? This is especially true for folks who are in high demand, like event speakers or high profile attendees.
The best way to make a positive impression on someone is to ask questions that unleash that person's passion or require them to tell personal stories.
"Asking more interesting questions gets you undeniably better answers," wrote Burke in her article, on how to talk to anyone about anything. "So instead of probing on what someone does now (which typically leads to awkward humble bragging), ask what they wanted to be when they grew up, what their first concert was, what magazines they subscribe to, or which celebrity they’d want to invite over for dinner. Doing so relieves people of the boring back-and-forth of typical office party conversation and into far more interesting territory."
For more ideas, here are 20 conversation starters to help you break the ice at a networking event.
8) You dominate networking conversations.
We've all been in one of those conversations. You know, the one where it slowly dawns on you you're listening to a person's life story and you may never be allowed to leave. Ever.
But have you ever been caught in a moment where you realized it was you who was doing this to another person? It can happen to any one of us, especially when we get excited about a particular topic or we really want to sell someone on our pitch. But dominating the conversation and monopolizing people's time can make you seem self-important, uninterested in listening to other people, and generally annoying. Remember: Networking events are for mingling and meeting a variety of people. Multiple people.
"A lot of people use networking as an opportunity to hard-sell themselves," said Hannah Fleishman, marketing lead on HubSpot's product team, in an email. "This is a big mistake. We should be using networking to make new connections and leave great impressions on those connections. Stealing the spotlight to talk about all the amazing things you've done isn't how you connect with someone -- save that for your job interview.
"Have a conversation, ask questions, and be genuinely curious about the new people you're meeting. People who can pick up on social cues, show an interest in others, and listen as well as they carry a discussion are the ones who stand out to me as someone I'd want to work with or stay in touch with."
To learn more about the importance of listening to others, asking questions, picking up on others' emotional cues, read this blog post on the 19 signs you're emotionally intelligent (and why it matters).
9) You avoid being the one to end the conversation.
Ah, the art of gracefully ending a conversation at a networking event. It's a tricky skill to master, but it'll save you from ending up feeling trapped.
"One of my bigger mistakes is that I let people dominate my time because I'm terrible at ending a conversation and moving on," said Sam Mallikarjunan, principal marketing strategist here at HubSpot. "So I end up only talking to a few people for long periods, and wasting the opportunity to connect with more folks."
So, how do you end a conversation without looking like a jerk? I actually wrote a whole blog post about gracefully excusing yourself from conversations. Here are a few of my polite suggestions for conversation-enders:
- "Did you see the restroom anywhere?"
- "I think I left my [laptop/bag/phone] in the other room. I'd better go grab it before it disappears."
- "I need another drink, what about you?"
- "You love XYZ? You should meet Joe, he loves XYZ too!"
10) You're overeager.
Once you meet someone at an event and exchange information, be cool. Being a likeable person has a lot to do with the interactions you have with others, so take care that you're not overdoing it.
"Don't add someone you're looking to get to know better on LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Google+, and Medium in one fell swoop," Burke told me. "It just comes across as too aggressive out of the gate. Pick one channel you know the person meaningfully engages with on a regular basis, and focus your attention there."
When you do choose that channel, make sure you're using it correctly, personalizing your messages, and being friendly and professional. In other words, don't be this guy: Here's a screenshot of an actual conversation that my colleague Siobhán McGinty was pulled into on LinkedIn:
There's a little lesson on how not to network with people. If you're not sure how to use LinkedIn for professional networking, read the networking section of this awesome blog post on how to use LinkedIn.
11) You aren't helpful.
In Burke's post on networking like a pro, she reminded me of a concept revered by HubSpot’s co-founder and CTO, Dharmesh Shah: the notion of being shockingly helpful. Focus on being helpful to others rather than on what you can get out of a networking relationship. When you rethink how you network in this way, you'll see the quality of your interactions go way up.
Burke suggests starting with the goal of helping ten people per month in a meaningful way. Start with a list from your immediate network, and "once you’ve warmed up your shockingly helpful muscles, expand your network each week." Trust me, this will pay off over time.
Remember: What goes around comes around.
12) You don't venture outside your existing network.
Speaking of expanding your network ... far too many people avoid building relationships outside their existing network or field of work, even if they don't mean to.
And are we surprised? It's way easier and more comfortable to stick with what's familiar, and at the end of the day, we all want to sound smart.
But if you don't expand your network, you risk creating a virtuous closed loop and rarely challenging your own perspective. To solve this problem, you need to be proactive: Start with the goal of following ten new people on Twitter and LinkedIn this week who are experts in something you know nothing about but find interesting. Don't let the algorithms pick these people for you -- actually go out and search for them. It could open you up to people worth learning from.
13) You don't ask for anything, or you ask for too much.
It's helpful to come to a networking event or conversation with a specific goal in mind. Maybe you're looking for a job and want to get advice on how to build your resume -- or even get a referral. Or perhaps you already have a job and you're looking for feedback on your project, or you want to spread the word about your company's work.
Once you have a goal in mind, the hard part is letting the other person know about your goal without coming off like you're using them. When you're networking, it's okay -- even encouraged -- to have an "ask." Not only can it help move the conversation and the relationship along, but it can also provide some welcome context to your follow-up.
However, there are two mistakes people often make here: Either they don't make their "ask" clear enough, or they overdo it and ask too much of someone.
"My last VP told me that not enough young people early in their careers make a proper 'ask,' my colleague Sophia Bernazzani told me. "They just talk, and maybe get a business card, without asking or saying something more definitively."
But no one's a mind reader. You'll never get what you're looking for if you don't ask -- and it's all about asking politely and genuinely. For example, if you're looking for a job and the person you're talking with doesn't have any openings, you might ask him:
- Well, what's the outlook for future opportunities?
- Do you know anyone else in the industry who might have something?
- Any thoughts on what my next step should be?
- Do you know someone whom it might be good for me to talk with?
If you're talking to this person via email, here are 12 networking email templates with language that might help you better position the request.
On the other end of the spectrum, you shouldn't ask for too much from someone you barely know. There's a huge difference between asking someone for advice on your next career move and asking them to be your mentor forever and ever. Same goes for asking for a quote for a piece you're writing, versus asking them to review the entire piece and give you in-depth feedback.
What other networking mistakes can you add to this list? Share with us in the comments.
Originally published Aug 9, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated February 14 2018