By Evelyn Yang Garland
There I was, at a well-attended networking event… hiding in the restroom! I hated to schmooze with a room full of strangers. I forced myself to attend that event for one reason only—I was looking for a job, and the one piece of advice that I kept getting was that I needed to network.
That is a true story. If similar things have never happened to you, congratulations to you—enjoy networking! If the joyful craving for networking is not in your blood yet, read on.
Over the years, I have come to enjoy networking. Thinking back, among the myriad advice and tips I obtained from different sources, a few of them made real, significant differences. I want to share them with you so that you also can enjoy networking without having to spend as much unpleasant time learning as I did.
One common fear among newcomers (and some veterans) is that the people they want to meet will be too busy to talk to them. These people are often well connected in a group, so they never lack conversation partners. As a result, it seems hard to break into a conversation with them.
The truth is: the most effective networkers are delighted to meet new people and are open to new discussions. They do not limit their conversation to those who are apparently useful to them. They listen to you. They want to learn about you. And they try to be helpful—by making introductions for you, suggesting resources to you, or simply saving you from the boredom of wandering around all by yourself. They understand that meaningful relationships are fostered when both sides are keenly interested in learning about and helping the other.
I am not suggesting that it is always easy to start or join a conversation. After all, we do engage in intense discussions from time to time in public and do not wish to be interrupted. So watch for signs that suggest openness to conversation, such as eye contact and open postures. A skilled networker, even when he is already talking with a few others, often displays an open gesture to welcome new people to join the conversation. If you have been waiting for a while on the outskirts to join a conversation and no one attempts to bring you in, make your exit quietly and gracefully. Consider it their loss to miss the opportunity of meeting someone new.
One thing that works well for me is to create my own mini-networking events. Ask someone whether you could have lunch together, schedule a chat with a new contact over the next coffee break, or invite a couple of random people to join you for a walk in the evening. Feel free to come up with more creative ideas. These mini-networking events can be nice complements to larger networking events, especially if schmoozing in a loud, large crowd is not your favorite activity.
Another fear among new entrants in a particular field is the feeling of not having much to contribute in a conversation. You are the newbie there. You get lost when jargons like “PM” and “TM” pop up. You have no solution to offer when people discuss issues in their work, no comment to make on future challenges for the profession, no anecdote to provide new insights. You wonder: why would anyone want to talk to me? And you fear: they do not care to talk with me.
Do not let this fear get in your way. People do not expect newcomers to be the ultimate sources of solutions and insights. Many seasoned professionals are happy to see new faces and offer help. After all, we were all once the new kid on the block. We never forget the unease of trying to be part of a new group. We are forever grateful to the first strangers who smiled at us and invited us to join their warm conversations.
If, however, you do want to give back to those who welcomed you into their conversations—right then or later—here are a few ideas that do not require deep understanding or extensive experience in your profession. Offer to connect them with someone you know who shares their interest. Share an interesting article you come across later. Send them information on a good event. Refer a job to them (if they do freelance work or are in transition). Do not worry that they already had the information or contact—people are just as happy to know that you are thinking of them.
Someday, you will be a respected professional, a seasoned networker, and a center of conversations. When that day comes, remember to stretch out a hand to the novices, invite them to join your conversation, and help ease their way into the profession.
This is the best way to give back.
About the author: Evelyn Yang Garland owns and manages Acta Chinese Language Services, a growing translation company specializing in Chinese translation for business, legal, and government clients. She also spends a significant portion of her time translating and interpreting. Evelyn is an ATA-certified English-Chinese translator and Maryland court-certified Mandarin interpreter based in the Washington, DC area. She truly enjoys both the technical and business aspects of translation.