In defense of networking, there is no need for the process to be cynical. Networking has a bad reputation primarily because some people are more interested in using your professional value that making friends.
This does not have to be the case. The best networkers understand that they make friends first and ask professional favors later.
Follow these two golden rules and you will do very well:
Where to start
If you do not already have business cards, they can be acquired at little expense and are highly useful. They do not have to be fancy, just your name, email address, current employment/education are the important parts. If you want to glam them up a little, go for it; just make sure they remain professional and easy to read.
A great network starts at home, when you start out in a new job or internship, get to know the people around you, introduce yourself, and go for lots of coffees.
Think about organizations in your professional circle, and for whom you might want to work. Sign up to their newsletters, like them on social media, check out their events pages routinely, and make sure you attend at least one event a week.
When you arrive
If you are an introvert, this can be daunting. Worst of all, the more people you talk to, the more energy you will spend – so focus on quality over quantity. If you organize an event, you play the host. This means you greet many people, you are mobile, and you have confidence as you approach them, because you are the power on the room. Networking is no different.
Talk to lots of people, but remember rule number one, be sincere. Instead of asking people what they do right off the bat, ask them how they are enjoying the event, talk about the news, etc. Get to know people sincerely before you dive into careers.
When you have made a real connection, swap business cards. Key tip: it is more important you get their business card than they get yours! Give yourself the power of follow up. Most connections vanish because people fail to follow up.
The follow up
Ideally, within 48 hours of meeting someone. You do not have to ask everyone for coffee, but it is important to expand your network and ensure the people who meet you remember the occasion.
Send an email telling them how much your enjoyed the conversation and include specific details to jog their memory. For those you do want to meet, ask them for a coffee or lunch in order so that you can ask them for further advice. Remember that for those you have just met, its advice you seek; do not ask them for a job or a recommendation, it is too early. Another point to note here is that you are holding a professional meeting, which means no dinners. Dinner is a date.
Give them at least 5 working days to respond, after that, you can follow up one more time before moving on. If they do not have time to meet, hold a phone call. If they will meet you, make it easy, find a coffee place or lunch spot near their office and suggest a number of days you are free. The onus is on you to be flexible.
The coffee meeting
Arrive for your meeting 10 minutes early and make sure you have questions ready. It is important to know what you want to talk about so you can achieve your end goal for the meeting. It shows you respect the time of the new connection and ensures you get the most out of the conversation.
Ask your new contact for advice on other people you can connect with on this area. This ensures that you continue to build your network.
Always, always, always send a prompt thank you note to anyone who assists you. This should be personal and if possible, hand written, though an email is fine too.
Remember that networking goes both ways. Connections are not like ATM’s you can keep taking from, you are expected to help others too and be a helpful partner wherever you can.