Networking is much maligned. People find it awkward, weird, boring, intense. But I think it can be a great thing. I just think that a lot of people go into it with the wrong mindset. If you walk into a room of people thinking “well, who can I use as a stepping stone in my career?” you might come off as a pretty unpleasant person.
Opportunities that have come up for me have come from just getting to know new people, often in non-work settings like evening classes or much less formal work things like Christmas parties. Even just chatting with people in the work kitchen and getting to know people there has served me very well in my career. It’s also made working much nicer in general. Maybe you bond with someone over the type of coffee you like, you say hello to each other in the lift and corridor. It just makes your day a bit more pleasant. Getting to know people is good, whether it leads to a new job or project is irrelevant, it’s just always good to talk to people. We are social animals after all!
I’ve been to networking events where I’ve spoken to people and watched as they slowly realise that I am of no value to them in terms of advancing their career. I’ve seen them slightly trail off, their attention turns to who else is in the room, they start looking over my shoulder and at the first chance they get, they stop talking and walk off to try someone else. If you don’t take it personally, this is really quite funny to witness.
When networking, don’t just see other people as opportunities you can seize
Bond with folks over the food or drink in the venue, talk about the weather, talk about the room they’ve put you in (often a dank basement if you work in Higher Education!) there is nothing wrong with small talk in these situations! Small talk is important in all social settings and not something to be skipped over. Small talk is how you can strike up a rapport with someone, which makes the often nerve-wracking situation easier to navigate.
If you meet people on a human level you’ll be remembered later as that person who talked about how unexpectedly nice the vegetarian quiches were. This is much better than being remembered as the intense weirdo who came right up to them without introduction and immediately started talking about how perfect they’d be for their new project.
Networking is work, sure, but it’s also a break from it where you can talk about the latest news in the company, or what’s going on with the roadworks across the road from your office. It doesn’t have to be business all the time. Be careful with gossip though, you never know who might be around and there’s a chance you’ll put your foot in it!
I know it can be annoying, awkward, anxiety inducing, but you if you go into a networking opportunity with the mindset of keeping the chat light, this will serve you so much better. You’ll find people to talk to and who knows, maybe you’ll meet a new work friend to go for coffee with. These real connections have so many more benefits than just advancing your career sometime in the future, they’ll make your working life more pleasant right now.