Whether you’re a seasoned professional, budding entrepreneur, or anywhere in between, learning how to build your network is essential to advancing your career. But popular trends might have you wondering…does every entrepreneur have to be a social media influencer? Do you have to recite an elevator pitch for your business to everyone you meet at your sister-in-law’s wedding? Yikes, that’s pretty intimidating, especially if you don’t consider yourself a great “people person.”
Fortunately, knowing how to build your personal network boils down to far more fundamental concepts. It’s not about how many followers/connections you have on LinkedIn, Instagram, or wherever people in your field gather. Networking is really about relationships and community, not just getting ahead. It might require stepping outside your comfort zone, but it doesn’t require radically changing who you are.
Today we’ll cover the basics of building a professional network, with steps you can take both online and in person. Then we’ll cover five concrete tips for leveraging your existing network. If you’ve stuck around on our page for a while, you’re probably at least tangentially interested in speaking, so we’ll wrap up with a section on networking for speakers specifically.
How to build your network
Building and optimizing your network is not something you can check off your to-do list in a week. But there are a few key principles that you can prioritize from the very beginning. Start by implementing these, and your network will grow very organically.
Create a strong online presence. Learning how to build your network requires cultivating a personal brand. This brand follows you everywhere you go, online and offline. It defines the first impression you give off. Merging the personal and the professional in this way might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but it all comes down to letting your authentic self shine through in all activities. We have a whole blog on building your personal brand here if you need to work on that.
Let’s face it, there’s a solid chance people will google your name after meeting you. Maintaining a strong online presence will greatly assist your networking endeavors. If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, make one now. Creating a strong LinkedIn profile isn’t a sure-fire way to make advantageous professional connections, but it’s a good start! Learn best practices for LinkedIn within your industry, follow top content creators in your field, and try to engage with like-minded individuals. LinkedIn doesn’t have to be your primary source of connections, but it might play a big part in that first impression.
Even more importantly, make sure your use of LinkedIn (or whatever other social media networks you use to advance your personal and professional brand) is appropriate for your business goals. If you post a lot on Twitter but nobody in your industry really uses Twitter, you’re out of luck. You want to be active and engaged in online spaces where good connections will find you rather than you seeking them out. Our “watering holes” section below covers this in more detail.
Diversify your network through shared activities. Everybody exists within a network, so you should never underestimate the connections you already have. But if you limit yourself to your workplace, family, and existing community, your network can turn into an echo chamber. After all, you probably work with the same team every day and see a lot of the same friends every weekend. You likely gravitate toward people similar to you and to each other. While those close contacts would probably give you the shirt off their back, they might not offer you the challenge and opportunity of a more diverse network.
Shared activities are a great way to add people to your network who don’t necessarily share a lot in common with you. A classic example is a round of golf. However, you can also seek out shared group activities that offer diverse networking potential. Joining a social sports club, your local university alumni group, a charitable volunteer organization, or a nonprofit board are all great examples. Basically anywhere you can meet diverse and ambitious people who share an interest or passion! Shared activities provide amazing natural opportunities for making valuable connections. They also include built-in conversation starters to save you from socially awkward situations. Win-win.
Find watering holes within your industry. Diversifying your network is a huge boost for your personal and career development. But how do you maximize your particular goals within your industry? You have to find the “scene.” Without a doubt, there are “watering holes” at which professionals in your space regularly congregate. It’s time for you to start hanging out at those watering holes too. That could mean membership in particular associations, participation in conferences, or finally attending that monthly cocktail hour you’ve been invited to.
At these types of gatherings, it is absolutely essential to be anything but a blatant opportunist. Can’t say it enough: building relationships takes time. Enter these situations with the intention of forging genuine connections rather than getting something out of it every time. You might not reap the benefits of those relationships for months or years to come. Or you might have the opportunity to lend someone else a hand before they can help you. That’s a good thing.
Finding watering holes might come pretty easily if you live in a big city, but what if you don’t? Well, if you build a strong online presence, you’ll notice some virtual watering holes forming. There are Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter communities, Instagram pages, and more for just about every industry. Follow people who are one or two steps ahead of you in their career on social media and see what online communities they frequent.
Keep in mind, in the virtual space it is just as essential to avoid coming across as an opportunist. Ground your interactions in a genuine desire for adding value and an authentic personal brand and you will forge really meaningful relationships online. Ideally, you will end up part of a “scene” that mingles online and offline interaction–often with the same people!
5 concrete steps to build your network
Maybe you’ve been strategizing network building for a while. Or maybe you have a pressing need and want to tap into what your friends and family have to offer your business or career journey. It’s time to reach out and ask for help! But how do you actually make use of your networks without coming off as needy or utilitarian?
Here are five steps you can take to maximize outcomes in the short and long term.
- Get in the right mindset. It can be awkward to get over the hurdle of asking friends, family, and acquaintances for help, especially if you’re not sure they have anything to offer. Shift your mindset to one of optimism. Even if great-aunt Jenny doesn’t have any direct connection to your work, she might know someone who does. You will never know if you don’t ask.
- Clarify your market. If you’re reaching out to someone for professional assistance, make sure your goals are easy to explain. If you can give a very specific description of what you do, who you help, and what problems you solve, you will make the connection more easily. Spend time getting clear on your business before you tap into your wider network.
- Prioritize your network. Once you clarify your market and goals (e.g. a target customer niche), work backwards. Who in your network is most likely to know people in that niche? This is not the time to send a copy-paste message to all your LinkedIn connections. Make a list of the highest-potential people in your network and prioritize them for step #4.
- Engage your network. Engaging your network requires personalized communication. No mass bcc emails here! Reach out to those prioritized contacts and suggest a specific date and time for a meeting or call to discuss your needs. Don’t feel like an imposition (it will show through in your message)–after all, your contacts might stand to gain something from you too!
- Follow up with gratitude. Even if you don’t “get anything out of it,” treat every contact who agrees to a meeting with the same authentic appreciation. Whether that’s a thank you note, gift, or paying it forward by referring them some business, they will appreciate it. Building your network is a long game. You will have to manage, curate, and protect it over the course of many years. Take note of the people who are willing to listen to you at the start of your career. If they listen to you now and you follow up with gratitude, they will be more likely to reach out again when they can lend you a hand.
Remember, these steps apply to any stage of your networking journey, whether you’ve been trying all the strategies we covered in the first section for months or you’re combing your Facebook friends list. You can start with friends and family and then move onto new prioritized connections as you expand your professional network. For a further breakdown of every step on this list, listen to our podcast with Erick Rheam right here.
How to build your network as a speaker
Here at The Speaker Lab, we’re obviously in the business of speaking. So it’s only right that we leave you with some speaking-specific advice on how to build your network! We’ve actually done a couple podcasts loaded with these tips, which you can find here and here. If you haven’t integrated these ideas into your speaking networking strategy yet, they might be the boost you need!
- Target your industry. Getting known in one tiny pond is easier than getting known in the whole ocean. On the lookout for new connections? Let people know where (e.g. NYC) and what (e.g. HR reps at finance companies) you’re targeting.
- Always include a value-add when you reach out. When connecting with event planners, this is pretty easy. You have great speaking services to offer! However, if you’re trying to build your network by connecting with audience members, you have to get creative. You can offer other services, like consulting or coaching. Or perhaps you can introduce them to someone you met at a previous event. This sends a message that you are serious about creating a sustainable network, not just in it for your own gains.
- Connect with other speakers who will be at the same event. You can get a head start on this step weeks before the event. Invite the other speakers into a conversation–maybe offer to make your message complementary to theirs! If they don’t have time to chat, let them know over email how excited you are to be there with them.
- Pique curiosity in your talks. Many audience members straight up won’t realize that you do this for a living unless you tell them. When speaking, casually mention other projects, clients, and topics you’ve worked on (if they’re relevant). You never know who in the audience is looking for their next speaker on exactly that topic!
- Be available at events. Hang around after your talk, attend cocktail hours, and make it clear that you’re open to conversations. You could even drop a line like “many of my clients are just like you, so feel free to come up and chat after the talk!”
- Get their contact information. Passing out your card to everyone you meet is like tossing it straight into the void. Always ask for the other person’s card or email so you can send them a personalized follow up. Alternatively, you can integrate this into your talk by having audience members leave cards on their seats, scan a QR code to send you their information, or something else creative.
Speaking is a relationship-based business. Your network will come in handy as you expand your business offerings, pivot markets, and, of course, look for new gigs. Remember to check out podcasts #228 and #193 for more networking advice curated just for speakers!
All professionals can benefit from building a strong professional network. It’s a project that takes time, but investing in the foundational steps we’ve outlined here will pay off with great rewards in the long run. Whether you’re building your LinkedIn presence, heading to your first networking event, or firing off emails to prioritized contacts, always maintain an attitude of gratitude! The relationships you forge will last longer and might even turn into friends–for life!