Networking — the word gets bandied about like a beachball at spring break. But what does it really mean? And how can you avoid embarrassing mistakes? These are legitimate concerns for young grads entering the workforce, especially in a world where half (or maybe all) of your life has been documented on the internet. Practicing the art of networking can seem too risky for many.
Fortunately, Thomas Heath, a business coach and the co-founder of The Life Guidance Center in Charleston, S.C., has some excellent "do this, not that" tips on how to start networking (plus word on five serious networking taboos to avoid).
1. Disregarding your brand
What's your brand? Well, before you've had employment experience, your brand is the specific group of characteristics and life events that set you apart from everyone else. Be clear about who you are and what you stand for and prepare to differentiate yourself in networking situations. You'll be more memorable and make stronger personal connections based on being clear and authentic about your brand. So make sure you invest some time to crystallize it for yourself so you can discuss it with others.
It's also time to clean up your social media presence. The biggest mistake that a college student can make when it comes to job-hunting is what they inadvertently share, particularly if not in line with the brand you're trying to create. "If you're leaving pictures of you at beer pong parties on Facebook, remember that potential employers can see that," says Heath. "I've had tons of people say to me, 'I went to their Facebook page and once I saw that, I took them off my candidate list.'"
Heath also cautions recent grads to remember that merely making a profile private doesn't mean it can't be seen. "Bosses have friends and employees that might be friends or connected to you. If you're worried about a picture or comment, just delete it."
2. Networking instead of making real connections
"Quite often, [networking) can send a person into a mindset of selling or promoting themselves," says Heath. The correct approach is just to be authentic. Young grads can appreciate this, he adds — no other generation is seemingly more turned off by fake promotion.
Do you like it when a conversation with a friend turns into an attempt to sell you something? Likely not. Your potential connections don't want to be pressured to "invest" in you. Being your honest, authentic self is the best way to find a real job opportunity or introduction that could set you on the path to a potential career.
According to Heath, you can make better networking connections by asking contacts, "How can I help you?" By offering up your services and skills, you're giving someone a reason to stay in touch and to see your talents and attributes firsthand.
3. Forgetting your business card
Yes, showing up at an event without a business card is a taboo, even if you don't have a professional job yet. It only costs $30 or so to make a set of cards that let you quickly pass on your name and contact info. Business cards may be old school, but they're still easier than transferring contacts via phone, and they trigger a memory when your new contact pulls your card from a pocket or purse at the end of the day. PCMag pulled together a report card of business card printers, options and pricing to help you get started.
Likewise, don't forget to ask people for their cards — then follow up with them directly. Be sure to include your full name, phone number, email address, LinkedIn profile and a link to your online portfolio if you have one.
4. Maintaining a LinkedIn profile
"One of the first things an employer will do when they receive your resume is Google you," says Heath. "Out of the top ten search results, LinkedIn will usually get into the top three." Make sure your LinkedIn page includes the following:
- Professional headshot (not a photo from a vacation or a wedding).
- Headline. We're talking about the 120-character field under your headshot. Write a brief summary of who you are and what you're looking for. It might read, "Marketing professional looking for my next adventure," or "Budding business development manager looking to join a great team."
- Complete summary. This is the 2,000-character field where you can share more about your background and your ambitions. "This more than a resume. It tells your story," says Heath. For instance, it could say: "As a recent Clemson grad with a degree in health sciences, I'm passionate about working in a private family practice helping the elderly population live more healthy lives."
5. Not developing an elevator pitch
Every college grad should be able to provide an answer to, "What's the type of work you're looking for?" in 10 seconds or less. Heath recommends practicing a short, to-the-point statement that highlights your ambitions and trajectory — this is what is called an elevator pitch. For instance, you could say, "My dream job is to work for a tech company handling their social media strategy."
Sweet and simple. Having a clear response helps the person you're talking to remember what you're interested in and then, with any luck, he/she will be able to clearly share that with others. Practice, but don't over-rehearse – you want to sound natural and honest.
You'll have an easier time polishing up answers about your desired career path once you get your resume in order. Use our Resume Builder to design an effective summary of your accomplishments so far. With each successful networking experience, you'll be honing the interpersonal skills that are so important to employers.