Seven simple steps to start networking

Clare Dignall author of Collins’ Negotiation Skills in 7 Simple Steps gives some valuable graduate advice on the importance of networking

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If there is one regret I have about University, it is that I didn’t understand the importance of networking. I locked myself away, studying into the small hours, thinking that was the key to success. What I didn’t realise was that, important as study was, I should have balanced time spent with my books with getting to know my peers better. Make sure you network more effectively than I did!

Here’s how to get going, in seven simple steps.

Start early
University is networking paradise – rarely if ever will you find so many like-minded, ambitious and talented people milling around you at any other time of your life. So be prepared to start your networking career during your time at University, not after it, when you’re looking for work. Effective networking is about investing time in people now, before you need them!

Network for mutual benefit
There is a common misunderstanding that networking is about getting what you want out of people – begging a party invite, for example, because the host’s father is CEO of a big corporate and you need a job. Networking to ‘take’ gets results in the short term, but won’t win you career allies that are with you for life. Rather, positive networking involves meeting new people and maintaining a valuable relationship with them, to the benefit of both of you. It relies on a ‘pay it forward’ mentality of giving first and expecting nothing in return. The gift may be nothing more than listening well, or sharing some information, but in time, it may bring you later reward.

Identify your existing network
Look around your friends, flatmates and tutors (even if you have now left Uni, you can still get back in touch if you act quickly). Think about their skills, talents, interests, hobbies, and the degrees they’re studying or teaching. How might you support each other in your journey towards a career? Remember: strong ties (people you know very well) and weak ties (people at the edges of your social group) are both useful. Strong ties are life-long allies, while weak ties can introduce you to new, valuable individuals you might never have known. If you feel your network is small, extend it by trying something new, like volunteering, a club, or a part-time job.

Get your social media in orderSurround yourself with those that bring out your best 
Having identified your network, pick out those people particularly important to you. Who brings out your best ideas? Who invariably puts you in a good mood? Who supports your studies rather than limits them? And crucially, who would you turn to in a crisis? These are your ‘strong ties’ – and, quite possibly, your allies for the rest of your life. Invest in these valuable relationships by prioritising these people over others. Make time to see them face to face – don’t rely on Facebook to do it for you.

Get your social media in order
Start to think about your social media presence as a networking asset that complements your progression to a career, rather than just a break from study. Google yourself: what do the results say about you as a person, as a potential employee or entrepreneur? If you are shocked by what you see then it’s time to take down compromising snaps on Facebook, and negotiate with friends to stop tagging you in photos you don’t want made public. Employers will think nothing of ‘googling’ interview candidates before meeting them – so make sure your social media is sending the right message.

Become event-ready
If you’ve an important networking event approaching, like a careers fair or graduate reunion, prepare. Plan your travel to arrive promptly before tight groups form; these are hard to break into. If possible, find out in advance who is going, so you can plan who would like to meet. Present the very best version of yourself: dress well, stand tall, smile, and be prepared to talk about yourself in a positive way. Make eye contact with people you meet. Offer a firm and positive handshake and remember people’s names.

Become a good listener
Lastly, becoming a good listener is probably the most influential skill required for effective networking. Good networkers introduce themselves, perhaps give a brief description of what they do (or hope to do) and then allow the other person to talk. They use open questions that encourage a full response rather than a ‘yes/no’ answer. They maintain eye contact. They don’t interrupt, but instead offer supportive ‘verbal nods’ like ‘Uh huh’ and ‘I see’, which encourage the other person to speak further. It’s amazing what you will learn about people – even old friends you though you knew – when you learn to listen properly. And listening instils trust, possibly the most crucial feature in mutually beneficial relationships.

About the author
Clare Dignall has worked in both the public and private sectors, in established organisations and challenging start-ups. Since working for herself she has realised, more so than ever, the importance of forming close business relationships and extending her network. Clare is the author of Collins’ Successful Networking in 7 Simple Steps (£7.99) part of the new 7 Simple Steps Series..

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