If the idea of starting a conversation with strangers makes you cringe, you are not alone. There are a lot of Learning and Development (L&D) professionals who have feelings of anxiety when it comes to networking with peers. Though networking can be intimidating, most people feel more comfortable when following a step-by-step process.
The practice of creating mutually beneficial relationships has been a required activity throughout my career in sales leadership and L&D consulting. Although it doesn’t matter how you do it, the skill of networking is vital to your long-term success as a freelancer.
Consequently, doing it effectively can help you find mentors, connect with peers, and land the jobs you want.
In my experience, networking is not a one-and-done activity. Above all, it takes commitment, resilience, and a willingness to be vulnerable. Before I get into how to do it, you need to be clear on why networking is important. So, why is it beneficial to create networks?
The reality is you cannot go it alone and simply expect to take your chosen industry by storm based on your genius alone. As a consultant, if you haven’t realized this already, you will soon enough. Like it or not, there will come a day you’ll need to lean on someone else for advice or help.
Deadlines, whether from clients or the IRS, tend to not be so forgiving. To that end, meeting peers who can offer valuable advice or review your work can be beneficial.
What if your goal is to establish yourself as an expert or thought leader on a specific topic? Without a strong network, how are you going to get noticed?
Another reason to network is to identify mentors, highly successful people who are willing to provide helpful career advice and share their experiences. Consulting can be daunting, especially at first. After all, you are suddenly responsible for every aspect of your own business, and it can be complicated.
Whatever your purpose, before you get out there and start meeting people, you should clarify your goals. Once you are clear on why it becomes much easier to identify the individuals you hope to connect. Having clarity will be vital as you make progress along your journey.
Business networking has been around in one form or another for decades. Like many of you, I have read countless articles, books, listened to podcasts, watched videos, and questioned people to get networking tips.
Over time, I ended up taking my own process for connecting with other L&D professionals and created a simple-to-follow method. I call it the STAPLES Method, and it consists of seven basic steps:
- S = Start the conversation
- T = Tell them a little about yourself
- A = Ask for their opinion or ideas
- P = Propose an offline conversation
- L = Look for ways to add value
- E = Express the desire to keep in touch
- S = Schedule a follow-up conversation
Even though I gave it a fancy acronym to make it easier to remember, its main purpose was to create structure and eliminate stress. As for the individual steps, each is based on sound professional networking advice I’ve learned.
While I primarily use the STAPLES Method for building relationships online, you can use it in any situation where you are initiating the discussion.
When networking online, you have a lot more time to think about what to say before jumping in. The additional time can be a gift or a curse. Sending the first message is an easy place to get stuck. One of the ways to avoid this is by doing a little research.
For example, on a social media platform like LinkedIn or Facebook, look at a potential contact’s profile and try to find an exciting topic to discuss.
After doing your research, if something you found makes you think, “this is a person I want to get to know,” use it in your initial message.
The first message doesn’t need to be very long. In fact, it shouldn’t be. The longer your message is, the less likely it will be read through to the end. Introduce yourself and ask a question to learn more about the person and the topic.
S = Start the conversation.
Here are a few examples of opening messages I have used in the past:
- “Hi Mike, I was hoping to connect with you. It looks like we have a shared interest in animation. What got you interested in doing this kind of work?”
- “Hi Jess, Thanks for connecting with me. I saw you mentioned transitioning to a career in Instructional Design. Me too! What made you change career directions?”
- “Joyce, thank you for adding me to your network. It looks like we both started freelancing around the same time. How are things going for you so far?”
Start with a topic you want to learn more about; otherwise, you could be wasting everyone’s time. Think about what you hope to learn and keep it in mind as you send your first message.
When networking with people, sharing information about yourself provides context for the other person. Yet, it is important to not overshare. Telling a stranger your life story right away is not a great way to start a new relationship. To be frank, they don’t really care much about you yet.
A study cited in Psychology Today confirms the reasons why people love talking about themselves. The short of it is because it feels great! So, no matter how good it makes you feel, resist the urge to talk about yourself too much.
T = Tell them a little about yourself.
You can’t learn if you are doing all of the talking. Nevertheless, your own background and story shouldn’t be a closely guarded secret either.
If the person you just connected with asks you a question about yourself, answer it, but keep the conversation focused on them as much as possible in the beginning.
At this point, you are probably still sending messages back and forth. The good news is your initial message probably hit the mark, and you aren’t getting ghosted.
Considering the main purpose of networking is to create an open dialogue with a fellow peer, responding in kind is a positive. After that, the next step is to get them to open up and share their opinions or ideas.
Brene Brown is a famous researcher, author, and speaker who studies vulnerability and trust. Recently, she spoke about sharing ideas and opinions as an act of vulnerability. Bonds between people become stronger through acts of vulnerability.
To open the door for a deeper connection, ask others to share their thoughts.
Creating space for this type of interaction requires that you ask a thought-provoking question. If you are unsure of what to ask, use the information, you’ve gathered from the discussion so far.
A = Ask for their opinion or ideas.
One strategy I often use to develop interesting questions is to identify two topics relevant to the conversation.
Ideally, these topics are seemingly unrelated. Combine the topics in the form of a “what if” question. For example, Information Technology (IT) and L&D are usually separate departments within a company. On the surface, there is no apparent connection.
Yet, if you ask a question like:
- “What do you think would happen if I.T. and L&D departments worked together more intentionally?”
Now you’ve got a fascinating question for your new contact to ponder. In this example, the intersection of IT and L&D has produced many opinions about how these departments can work together (i.e., The Agile Manifesto for L&D).
The beauty of “what if” questions is the absence of right or wrong answers. Instead, they create opportunities for exploration and deeper discussion. Take a minute and come up with a few “what if” questions of your own.
Use topics you are familiar with and take note of your opinions as they begin to develop.
Moving the conversation from an exchange of messages to a meaningful two-way dialogue is the next step. Recently, a study conducted at the University of Texas found people feel more connected when communicating verbally versus written text.
Therefore, proposing a phone or video conversation as the next step will encourage a stronger bond between you and your new contact.
Some people may decline the offer for a more direct conversation. Nevertheless, there is still value in adding them to your network. Be respectful and keep the dialogue going.
P = Propose an offline conversation.
If your new contact agrees to a phone call or virtual meeting, you’ve already set the foundation for a great conversation during the previous steps in the process. These types of interactions allow for a more rapid exchange of ideas and a deeper connection.
Throughout your networking process, keep working to deepen your relationships. It might take time to move the conversation offline, but don’t give up.
Stay engaged as long as you are making progress toward your ultimate goal and the other person is staying engaged.
At this point, you’re well on your way to “networking professional” status. Now that you’ve bonded over shared interests and are now communicating offline, you’re ready to raise the stakes and show what you bring to the table.
Networking is about more than just being a friendly acquaintance; people meet for a reason. Your goal is to be considered a valuable part of the other person’s business network.
To accomplish this, you have to demonstrate the value you bring to the relationship.
L = Look for ways to add value.
Taking time to identify what’s important to your new contact will allow you to tailor the way you show value. Figure out what matters most and find a way to contribute.
- Share resources to help complete a project
- Offer your expertise in a specific area
- Introduce them to someone else in your network
- Promote their work to others online
If you can’t think of anything else, a simple gesture like sending a thank-you note with a $5 Starbucks gift card will work. As a career-minded individual who understands the importance of networking, for instance, even the smallest gestures make a lasting impression!
Building any kind of relationship takes effort and intentionality. This is especially true when building meaningful business relationships through networking. Keep in mind, not every new contact you reach out to will result in a lasting bond worth nurturing.
Depending on the amount of time and effort you’ve invested up to this point, you may still want to follow up from time to time instead of walking away.
In cases where you want to maintain an open line of communication for the future, don’t just end things with “let’s keep in touch.” Whenever you use an ambiguous, passive send-off, it doesn’t express your true intentions.
Furthermore, it can make contact with the person in the future more inconvenient.
E = Express the desire to keep in touch.
When you are genuinely interested in a follow-up conversation, let the other person know. Be succinct and precise in your words. Tell your new contact why it was a meaningful exchange for you.
Leave no doubt you are excited to have added them to your network.
Not every person you contact will make it this far in the networking process. Although you can feel confident for those who do, they are someone who won’t mind you reaching out occasionally for advice or feedback.
The key is to not allow the time you invested in going to waste. Make an effort to solidify your new relationship as opposed to just ending things with empty promises. Rather, set a date for the next time the two of you will talk.
Even if you have to reschedule as the meeting gets closer, it is more important to put something on the calendar now. Psychologically this is an important milestone and subsequently serves to solidify the newfound connection more permanently.
S = Schedule a follow-up conversation
If everything goes swimmingly up to this point, take the time to schedule another call. The follow-up conversation doesn’t need to be right away, but it should be no further than a month or two out.
Allow enough time to pass so the next time you connect, there are updates to share and new information to discuss. Moreover, by taking the extra step of putting a future date on the calendar, you are both committing to maintaining an ongoing relationship.
Creating the STAPLES method was done to simplify the networking process. By breaking down the various steps, the hope was to make the whole exercise easier to remember and hence repeat consistently.
As a result, armed with a clear understanding of the process, you should have all you need to start building an invaluable, relevant network of professionals.
In short, start by clarifying your objective. Then identify the people with whom you want to connect. Once you’ve done these two things, you’re ready to dive in and make contact:
- Start the conversation
- Tell them a little about you
- Ask for their opinion
- Propose an offline conversation
- Look for ways to add value
- Express the desire to keep in touch (only if it makes sense)
- Schedule the next conversation
Networking is all about connecting with like-minded peers. It does not really matter how many people you ultimately meet; even just a handful of reliable contacts can make a difference. I would even argue a small network is more effective than a large network for many reasons. For one thing, you’ll have more time to strengthen the connections you do make.
There will be times the individuals you reach out to don’t respond. Some conversations won’t be beneficial, and you may need to skip the last two steps altogether. Regardless, stay focused on your primary goal and be persistent.
Remember, successful networking is a marathon, not a sprint.
Are you actively networking? If so, what is your process? What networking advice would you like to share? Your voice matters; share your thoughts with me!