I did not realise why networking played an important role in success stories until my final year at university. I thought that it was only in Nigeria that you needed ‘connections’ to actually get a job or promotion. So I buckled down with the mind-set that in the UK, all I needed was to get good grades. I did get the right grades most of the time but it did not necessarily provide me with opportunities. I never attended networking events because of my naivety and being seventeen at that time, I did not think any further. Then it clicked! When you are trying to shatter what seems like a glass ceiling- securing your first internship or job, shaking the right ‘hands’ is even more important.
I have heard and seen many success stories from people securing internships and dream jobs through networking. Personally, productive networking events are ones where I have just enjoyed the conversations and by the end, learnt something new. Although I am not an expert, this blog focuses on the aspects I wish I knew before attending my first networking event. The basics and tips you barely see anyone talking about.
- Choosing Your Outfit
It is simple- do not wear that flowery suit you have in your wardrobe or the ripped jeans to show how cool you are. Oh, I could be wrong, that might be your way of standing out. It is best that you err on the side of caution. In professional settings, you want to ensure that you look professional! For the ladies, don’t overthink it. I have seen a girl wear jeans and heels to a networking event at a city firm and it did not hinder her. I strongly recommend dark and smart clothing be it a dress or pant suit for formal events. Nobody would care that your clothing is from Primark, just carry yourself with confidence. If the event is semi-formal, a dark-coloured dress is your best bet.
- The Setting
You do not have to be at a formal networking event to network especially for shy persons like myself. Feel free to network at coffee shops, restaurants and office parties. Networking is not necessarily for you to meet people to progress your career. Sometimes, it is about the ability to hold a conversation with virtually anyone. Find the setting that suits you, is it semi-formal coffee networking events or brunches? My biggest tip in this regard is to be yourself no matter what. Do not feel like you have to tame your curiosity because you are amongst other well-suited students who appear to know it all. Ask questions and show a genuine interest in the topic regardless of the setting. I also recommend that you attend events tailored to professionals where it is less likely to have many students in attendance. This way, you do not have to fight for attention but you have to keep up with the lingo.
- The Introduction
This is often the hardest part because in your head, you are thinking ‘what am I going to say?’ or ‘I have nothing to say’ or ‘they probably don’t want to talk to me’. If I can give one recommendation, it is about self- confidence. Walk up to the person and say a line that you have memorised if it helps you. I once saw my friend walk up to a person and say ‘My name is XXXX and I am the president of my university’s Law Society’ and that was a conversation starter. The trick is to introduce yourself and what you would like to talk about. Pretend to be confident if you do not have that innate confidence. They want to talk to you for two reasons, that is why they are at the event (To network!) and they too would feel really awkward if nobody walks over to talk. You my friend, are worthy of holding conversations with experts in your field!
- The Conversation
You have now skipped the biggest hurdle which is getting the person in your presence. Often times, you are in a group talking about the subject of the networking event: Law, Finance or Brexit! There are lots you could talk about. My biggest tip which would serve you in all areas of life is that people love to talk about themselves. Simple questions will unravel so much. For example, ‘what was journey into the legal profession like?’ or ‘What does your role within the firm entail on a day-to-day basis?’ You just have to mutter things like ‘Impressive!’ and seek areas of genuine correlation where you can describe your experiences too. Speak your mind, ask open questions and be respectful especially of the other students. Don’t be the student that does not give others a chance to engage. If you hold an opinion contrary to the expert/professional, do not worry, they will not scream ‘You are so wrong- Haha!’ If you do not know the meaning of a term or acronym, do ask but sometimes, it might be best to note it down and find out later.
A friend of mine landed a job at an event just by talking about basic things in life like family, location and goals. I would say don’t sweat it, if they like you, they like you. It does not matter that you did not talk about the latest news in your field but don’t talk about the nights out that you are not so proud of. What probably helped him was that he did not know the person was high up in the organisation. So, think deeply about how you want to come across regardless of job titles, you might only get this chance once! Plus, only those who ask, receive!
When I attended an event, a professional gave me this tip: If the person that you wish to speak to delivered a talk/speech, it helps for you to note a point which they said earlier. So, walk up to them and say something along the lines of ‘During your speech, you mentioned that you believe that lawyers would always have something to do and I would just like to know your thoughts on the impact of technology because having something to do does not mean the tasks will necessarily be given to a lawyer…’ It not only shows that you listened but would get them to talk, trust me!
- The Two-Way Business Cards
I know some students are experts at coming across as incredibly professional, like they were born for the role! You can see the confidence which they exude as they whip out their glossy business cards (with a logo!!) and there you are thinking, ‘I haven’t even gotten my LinkedIn profile in order!’ The chances are nobody else will do this so they tend to stand out in the mind of the professional. We all know the power of a business card as demonstrated in the Royal Wedding DJ story. So, if you can and you are confident enough, bring your business cards. It demonstrates that you believe you have something valuable to offer.
Often times, when you attend your first few networking events, you are a bit shy to ask for a business card because you don’t want to come across as expecting something of the person. This is why it often helps to have something which you wish to further explore. For example, if you had discussed securing an internship and the person had offered to pass your CV onto the right party. You would ask for a business card to explore what they had offered. Most professionals are happy to hand out their business cards; it is what you do with it afterwards that is more important. If they do not have business cards, make sure that you take down twitter handles or email addresses.
- Exit and Aftermath
At this point you have either had a good conversation or not. You wish to leave and speak to other people or its just getting awkward. It is all about your body language and your choice of words. When you ask for a business card, it shows that you are ending the conversation. Don’t feel pressured to use the ‘toilet’ or ‘bathroom’ excuse. They know it is a lie. You can say something like ‘it has been very nice talking to you (name) and I would like to explore some of the things you mentioned earlier, do you have a business card?’ or ‘It has been very nice to talk to you (name) and I must not hold you any further as I see other students queuing up to talk to you. Enjoy the rest of the evening, and I will keep in touch!’
Last year, I tasked myself to work on making connections and building relationships. To achieve this, you have to follow up on your conversations. Add connections or post something on LinkedIn and send an email reminding them of the conversation you had. I believe there is something like the two-day rule so make sure you reach out within two days. The chances are not many students would have followed up so you are highly to become memorable and gain a new connection. If you are really interested in the new connection, ask them to have a cup of tea or lunch with you. Do not underestimate the importance of following-up, I actually had lunch with a former High Court Judge from this!
Finally, try to enjoy meeting people and find the settings that work best for you. Practise talking to strangers when you are standing on a queue at random places like the train station. It is hard to be memorable but having a good introduction and exit plan would certainly help. Remember, those who don’t ask, don’t get, so ask for business cards, marshalling opportunities or even a chat over a cup of tea at a later date. Generally, try to know the person you as speaking to, find similarities and explore the differences. Enjoy it because it is pointless stressing out about it!
Disclaimer: I expressly disclaim any liability for damages of any kind arising out of use, reference to or reliance on any information contained within this publication.Pictures and diagrams have been taken from Pixabay.com. I do not assume ownership or any responsibility for the accuracy or functioning of the pictures or diagrams presented in this publication.