There’s a false assumption that networking only happens on professional turf. People envision sprawling conference halls, where name badges are mandatory and the pressure is high. Yet networking needn’t be restricted to a single setting with specific people. In fact, reaching out to new people, strangers even, can be the best decision you ever made.
Traditional Networking is a Slow Process
A job search can often be limited by the size of your network. A small, closely interconnected web can restrict the frequency of good opportunities. Imagine a fisherman who only uses a small but sturdy scoop net. If a fish swims nearby him, he can use his speed and skill catch it, but anything beyond a few feet is out of reach. That’s what it is like to network solely with your family and friends: it can yield incredible positions, if one appears close enough.
Networking with your peers expands your haul, but still puts a constraint on your success. Certainly, your industry peers will have relevant jobs on their radar. With them, it’s easy to strike up a conversation since you share a common professional interest. However, if you exclusively build your network from your peer group, your opportunities can be surprisingly limited.
Peer networking tends to build your connections in a gradual way. You find one new connection who can link you to another. It’s an organic expansion of your network. Your number of connections won’t stagnate, but you might miss out on the chance to expand your network in creative ways.
Networking with Strangers Opens Up Unique Opportunities
Taking the time to network with a stranger can open up fathoms of worthwhile opportunities. Someone at a community event, a religious ceremony, or even in line at the supermarket may be aware of opportunities outside of your immediate network. Moreover, you may be aware of openings or information that can forward their careers. It’s a win/win situation.
The only thing preventing these connections from being made is the illusion that you have nothing in common (it’d be truly surprising if you didn’t).
How to Network with Complete Strangers
So what’s the secret to networking with strangers? Really, it only takes 5 simple steps.
• Remember It’s Good for You – A recent study found that positive interactions with strangers can make people happier and less irritable with loved ones than those who remained quiet. So even if you don’t add a new contact to your network, you’ll at least feel good about making an effort to communicate.
• Find Common Ground - Some commonality brought you both to the same place at the same time. Maybe it’s that you live in the same town, or share the same religion, or even enjoy the same hobby. Define that common ground and think of ways to build up it. You’ll often find you have more in common than you expected.
• Start Things Small – Conversation with new people can be intimidating, yet all it takes is a bit of small talk to start. A comment about your common situation, the weather, or the latest news (avoid politics) can help initiate conversation easily enough. There’s no pressure to perform, so don’t feel that your opener needs to be earthshattering.
• Be Willing to Steer the Conversation – Once your interaction has begun, make sure you steer it in the right direction. That doesn’t mean dominate the conversation. In fact, do the opposite. Ask successive questions that help you learn about the person’s career, his or her company, and what obstacles he or she is facing. Who knows? Maybe you can provide some help.
• Carry Several Business Cards – Did you make a good impression? If so, why let it go to waste? Networking is all about making a memorable connection and old fashioned business cards still manage to act as a reminder. Always carry a few in your wallet or purse. Make sure that your email and contact number are listed, and, for extra flair, add the address for your LinkedIn account or professional website.
On a final note:
No networking connection is ever a waste. The goal, however, is to make connections that can yield unexpected results. By taking a chance and building your network with people who were previously strangers, you can reach beyond the competition as you find new and exciting opportunities.
by James Walsh