An Engineer's Guide to the Networking Event
It is widely accepted that networking is an important skill to practice and master, and yet doing so can feel intimidating and awkward at times. Networking involves putting ourselves out there, learning about new people, and creating relationships that can influence our careers. But when a large part of this involves walking up to a group of people you don’t know, it’s not surprising that gaining these skills can be a tough sell.
“How do you do it? What is the secret to networking effectively? Is there some classified info I’m just not in on?”
These are questions that you may have asked yourself at some point in time, and we have definitely had the same thoughts. Have no fear, enggirlproblems is here! From introduction to graceful exit, we’ll take you through the different phases of a networking conversation and share our insight on what works. These 5 steps will help you come out looking like a natural (even if you really feel like a socially awkward engineer).
1. Walk up to a group of strangers and introduce yourself.
As an engineer, I find introductions can be the hardest part of networking. Whether someone has an engineering background or not, I’m never sure how much technical detail to include or how to sum up my job while using the right amount of “cool factor” to keep them interested. This article from The Muse explains how to make an intro that actually makes people feel something and thus remember you. Juicy stuff, right?
Example: I work in mechanical engineering consulting for the food industry. Now unless you’re in this field or one of those words piques your interest, you may not know what to say or where to take a conversation from there. But now watch if I change that to:
“I work in mechanical engineering for the food industry, which is basically like the show How It’s Made. My friends even call me an ice cream engineer.”
Now my job sounds a lot more relatable and, dare I say it, cool! Though we engineers are not known for our wordsmithing, spending time on your introduction is valuable because it makes the next steps in a networking conversation flow more smoothly. Give the article above a read and see what you can do about your own introduction!
2. Start a networking conversation that feels natural
Once you have your intro down pat, your next hurdle is entering a conversation that feels natural. The Harvard Business Review writes about three ways we can learn to love networking: by focusing on what you can learn, identifying common interests, and thinking about what you can give the other person. Choosing one of these tactics can take the pressure off and help you to build a real relationship with someone.
Remember, the goal of a networking event is not to find a job that night. Asking a brand new contact for a job is like trying to take water from a well that hasn’t been built yet. That sounds pretty awkward to me, and you don’t need an environmental engineer around to tell you that’s a bad idea (thanks Elaine). I like the three strategies from HBR because they put the focus on getting to know the person. It’s only after you’ve built a rapport that the power of your network can grow and allow for opportunities in the future.
3. Leave gracefully - this is the trickiest part
There comes a point in any networking conversation where it will either reach its natural end, or where you’ll want to try out your intro and conversation starters on someone else in the room. The Muse, once again, has some great pointers on this topic here.
First, if you had a great time talking to someone, tell them!
“Elaine, I had a great time speaking with you tonight. It was really interesting to hear about your work as a civil engineer on the London 2012 Olympic Stadium! I hope we can keep in touch.”
(Real talk: Elaine and I did meet a woman who worked on the London 2012 Olympic stadium. So cool!)
On the flipside, if you didn’t connect with the person, that’s okay too. You won’t connect with everyone you meet. Here’s how to gracefully exit:
“Elaine, it’s been great chatting with you. I have to say hello to a few more people here tonight, so I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening.”
No matter the caliber of conversation you experienced, be your courteous and wonderful self. And remember: awkwardly looking for food is not the best way to end a conversation. Trust.
4. Exchange information and follow up
You’ve made a great intro, hopefully had some good conversation, learned from or helped a new contact, and you’ve started to initiate your graceful exit. One final key to the networking interaction is the exchange of contact information and the follow-up. This is where you get to give out business cards too - an exciting affair when you’re just starting out.
Within a few days of meeting a new contact (some would even argue the next day), send them a message by way of email or LinkedIn to affirm your interest in them. It’s always nice to feel remembered and appreciated, so let them know once again that you enjoyed speaking with them at [insert event here] and that you’re hoping to keep in contact in the future. Simple as that! This step doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be completed. What’s all that hard work worth if you don’t follow up afterwards?
Pro tip: When you receive a business card, it’s a smart move to write down on them where you met the person and what you discussed. This gives you a talking point when you go to follow-up.
5. Keep that relationship up
This is the part of the program where I share with you what step I’m currently working to improve: keeping relationships up with contacts. When you put in so much work to attend events and go through the steps we outlined above, it’s important to keep the relationships alive. Here are a few ways you can keep in contact with your network after the event is over.
Set notifications in your calendar
Steve Sims, author of Bluefishing: The Art of Making Things Happen was recently interviewed on The Art of Charm podcast and talked about how he has created tools that help him follow up with his network. The biggest tool he discussed was using his calendar to set reminders to follow-up with his contacts. When he has a conversation or meets someone new, he immediately creates a notification a few months from that date and will write notes from their present-day conversation. I thought this was brilliant; not only does it help with what to discuss, but it is a tangible way to improve on following-up.
The beauty of the digital age is that we can use it to our advantage when keeping up with our network. Connecting with someone on LinkedIn feels less formal than e-mail and enables you to easily send interesting articles or congratulations their way.
Aim for more face time
At the end of the day, face to face contact is still one of the best ways to maintain a relationship with someone. However, this can be challenging if you’ve only just met. To circumvent this, I’ve been trying a few strategies. First, if I’ve met a contact at a reoccuring event, I’ve been trying to reach out before the next event to ask if they’ll be there. It affirms my interest and gives me a better chance to actually meet up with them again at the event. Second, if there are other events coming up that I feel one of my contacts would like, I’ve been trying to reach out and invite them. Hopefully it gives us a topic to discuss, and adds another shared event to our relationship going forward.
Well, there you have it! I hope these steps will be useful, and the only thing that remains is to get out there and try your hand at them.
Do you have any other pro tips? Have you had success in the networking game? Let us in on your secrets in the comments below.