How to network smarter

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Every morning these days I seem to wake up to a new LinkedIn request from someone I don’t know asking to join my network. That is not networking, and I don’t know who is encouraging this behavior. (It may be a French thing??). I for one am not a fan.

For me, LinkedIn works like an extension of real life. It’s the people I’ve actually met and connected with in person, or because we’re in a connected world, sometimes people I’ve communicated with more than once but our paths have never crossed paths with. It’s on the rare occasion that someone writes me cold and writes a message engaging enough to speak to me, that I’ll consider breaking my “rules”.

I constantly shake my head at the fact that most people network with the generic autofill message “Will you join my network?”. Yes, I use that all the time myself, but not to message people I don’t know. If you really want to make a new contact, but a little effort into it. Seriously. No matter how well known the person may be, everyone appreciates knowing that the work they put into the world has made an impacted or touched someone.

The perk of LinkedIn—compared to regular email—is that it limits the character count for that initial message. That’s a good thing. On the other end of the spectrum, long overwhelming outreach emails can also be anxiety inducing for the recipient. You want to write something worthy of a response. Busy people get enough generic emails. Make it personal and something they want to read.

Reframing networking

The first time I heard the statement “Make friends, don’t network” it was from illustrator Jessica Hische (someone famous for creating side projects like Daily Drop Cap, MomThisIsHowTwitterWorks.com, ShouldIWorkForFree.com, InkerLinker.com, and DontFeartheInternet.com). The idea making friends was far more appealing than the idea of networking, which just felt icky to me. I like to translate it to: be nice to people and good things will happen.

The power of networking doesn’t lie in how many people you know, but who you know. And when those people are interesting and cool, they know other interesting and cool people that may be able to help you too. Making connections is so much easier when it’s directly linked to a human. But never assume that just because someone knows someone else they’ll automatically connect you. You never know their relationship or the situation they may be aware of. But you can always inquire, just take the pressure off.

The thing about networking is that you can’t only network when you need a job. You need to always be feeding and nurturing your relationships. It makes it a million times easier when the time comes that you do need help. The ask is easy, not uncomfortable. And when you’ve built solid relationships it gives you so much more confidence to ask for help. (If you’re anything like me, you avoided this for too long because you didn’t want to look weak from not knowing the answer.)

The other thing you can do to help out the person who you’d like help or guidance from is to ask a specific question. It’s not that people don’t want to help you, they’re just busy. Having a specific ask that is direct and to the point rather than trying to for everything is much more likely to get a response.

Also, do your homework, and show the recipient that you know and appreciate what they do. If someone has a blog it helps to start by checking the archives. You can search on Twitter too. Or whatever other social media platforms they’re on. When you can make your message a bit more personal and show you’ve done some work on your end, it can make a big difference. It also helps respects the time of the person on the receiving end, so keep it succinct. It’s so easy these days, but so few people make the extra effort.

The awesome thing about social media is that it helps bring everyone a step closer and it removes many of the levels of hierarchy that were once in place. Every user uses each platform differently and has their own “rules of play” in terms of what they may respond to (often related to how “famous” they are). Many people are highly accessible, and you can reach out and connect with them openly and directly. They may not respond at first, but they likely will see any time you share their work or tag them in a post. So when you do make an ask, you’re no longer as anonymous as if you were reaching out to someone blind with a cold email.

Get noticed

Side projects are also one of the unique ways to get noticed these days. For Jessica Hische (mentioned above) her projects got spread far and wide on the internet. Having a little fun helped make her a household name in the design community. It also meant she got hired for more and more rad projects (including designing custom typography for a Wes Andersen film). These projects were just something she did for her own enjoyment (not with an ulterior motive), and they helped her build her illustration skills, and play around with some of her coding skills. Ultimately they helped her open and unlock certain doors.

For me, my [travel] blog has been my best business card from the start. It builds on the ethos “show, don’t tell”. It showcases my style, the projects that capture my attention, while also reflecting a certain work ethic—these posts don’t just write themselves! Early on I had a regular column called “Boarding Pass” where I featured different creatives in terms of how they traveled and documented their travels. In featuring people, I made connections with them. They’re all still contacts to this day, and doing so many amazing things. I wasn’t just featuring the big names either, but people I could see who were doing interesting work.

The other perk of my blog and online presence is I haven’t applied to a job since c. 2004. Work comes my way directly and indirectly through my blog, social media, and word of mouth. When you share snippets of what you work on, people are more likely to keep you in mind when a project they need help with arises and your unique mix of skills is exactly what they're looking for. Now that’s my kind of networking. People want to work with you for you!

More recently I did a little experiment. If you read down to the bottom of this post, I offered a handful of free 30 minute calls with me to talk about anything. It deserves a full post, but from that fun exercise, so much good happened. I had a blast connecting with readers again (something I’d failed at for years), I felt inspired (and I think they’d say the same), and much to my surprise in multiple conversations multiple “job” opportunities came up for me. And I wasn’t even looking. The crazy thing is, one of the awesome projects I’m working on right now came about from one of those calls. You never know what a simple conversation may lead to. Be open to possibilities.

Talk to strangers

This spirit is also why I gave myself the theme “talk to strangers” as my 2018 theme of the year. I noticed that France, unlike the US, is not quite as open to talking to everyone and anyone. The introvert in me always felt awkward at networking events in Paris—like I needed someone to give me permission to talk to other people. Rather than keep complaining, I decided to do something about that.

Last year I decided to embrace the awkwardness and put myself out there. The theme translated in many different ways, but one of the rules for myself was anytime I went to an event, I had to talk to one person I didn’t know. Nothing amazing had to come from this conversation, but I had to be open to putting myself out there. Bonus points (not really) if you make an effort to talk to someone who doesn’t look like you. Also remember, the people who may hire you one day—for a job or a project—aren’t necessarily the ones in the same industry as you. Open your net wider. (We could all afford to be a bit more inclusive.)

I decided to focus more on listening to the other person than trying to get my story out. (Listening is a completely undervalued skill, by the way.). The other perk was that every time I did have to explain what I do, it gave me the opportunity to test out how I talked about myself. When you’re a “slasher” like me who wears many hats (designer / writer / educator / etc.) the short elevator pitch is a constant work in progress. But you don’t get better until you do it more. Out loud.

My talks with strangers at events almost never led to a LinkedIn connection. But then on a couple occasions it led to something far more than that. Either way, I ALWAYS learned something new, even in the shortest of interactions. When you go into “networking” with an open mind you realize that the end game isn’t just about “building your network”. It’s also super rewarding to talk to someone new, or to be able to help someone else by sharing a resource that may help them in what they’re working on.

Conversation starters

Instead of asking someone what they do, consider reframing the question and asking “What’s your story?”. When you ask different questions, you may well get different responses. You’re also far more likely to make an impression and be memorable as the person with a fresh approach. NPR radio host Terry Gross shared her tips for better conversations with the NYTimes. She uses the prompt “Tell me about yourself” and insists curiosity is the way to be the best conversationalist.

What was the last memorable conversation that you had?

Working the connections

Having a strong network has its perks. I can reach out to friends anytime I have a quick question, or need an industry insight. I usually get a response in 5 minutes or less these days because I make it easy for them.

The coolest thing is now when people come to me about work, when it’s not a good fit, or I don’t have time, it’s something I almost always can recommend to someone else. More often than not they’re the better fit than me to begin with. Being able to send friends work, while supporting another contact is one of the most rewarding feelings ever.

It’s almost never an occasion where the person emails me looking for work and I think of them. It’s more that I have a familiarity of their interests and they have proven their work ethic indirectly through our interactions. They’re automatically the person who comes top of mind when the opportunity arises. But if you are looking for work, it doesn’t hurt to let people know, but try to give some specifics regarding your strengths.

This is where building, maintaining, and fostering those relationships is key. It may be years between contact in some cases, but when you have a solid foundation it doesn’t matter. It’s a stark contrast to those emails I receive that say “Are you the graphic designer?”. Yes, I really receive lame emails like this where the emailer doesn’t even bother to introduce themselves, who they are, or what they’re specifically looking for. And yes, while I have a background in graphic design, messages like this show a lack of awareness of my work in general. I also have zero desire to respond to messages like this or help this person. A little effort can go a long way. (Jocelyn Glei’s How to Ask People for Things Via Email: an 8-step program is a must read. As is Sean Blanda’s 10 Tips for an Awesome Coffee Meeting.)

Networking done right should feel effortless and fun. It’s not the formal, doubty way I learned in school. Business cards are still allowed. In fact, make a cool one that’s memorable and a good conversation piece.

Networking is about being brave enough to put yourself out there a bit more, being open to sharing your best work, and figuring out what works for you.

People want to see you succeed. Make sure you’re doing your part to make them want to help you too.

Image from a Jean-Charles de Castelbajac gallery show window in Paris.

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