We build up in our heads that networking only happens at organizational mixers with the big shots at your college, job interviews and career fairs. While this might be true, networking also happens in the places you least expect.
“[Networking is] getting your name out there, becoming connected with people. People often say networking is about who you know but I would say it’s more about who knows you,” University of Florida Academic Program Coordinator Gregg Henderschiedt said. You can, in fact, network without even realizing it. Oftentimes it comes down to simply being a good conversationalist at the right time. Armed with confidence and a bit of nerve, anyone can become a good networker, even accidentally.
We should probably first debunk some of the mystery surrounding networking. A network sounds complicated, so its actual simplicity might surprise you. “Your network is the sum total of people who know who you are,” Henderschiedt said. Simple, right? Talk to people, and you’ll make connections—I like to call this accidental networking. These are the connections you make simply by functioning in your day to day.
“Oftentimes students have this idea that networking is this schmoozy, business-like thing. It’s talking to people. Unless you’re living like a hermit in your dorm room, you’re probably networking,” Henderschiedt said. “It’s a mindset of recognizing that there’s potential for connections with everyone you know.” Networking doesn’t stay relegated to professors and professionals; you can find a useful connection unknowingly by talking to a classmate who happens to know someone in your field.
First and foremost, make sure people hear and remember your name. When talking to people about what you do, you create a specific brand. “[You need] to have people know who you are and what you’re about. If you have a brand that you can put out there, then that can produce fruit for you,” Henderschiedt said. Take, for example, my work for College Magazine. In the three months I have written for this publication, I’ve made connections with sources that have recognized my work and offered me guest blog opportunities and jobs. Why is that? Whether it comes up in conversation or they see an article on social media, I’ve made my writing an inextricable part of my brand.
Given that we spend our days in conversation with people (aka potential connections), you’re already an accidental networker. Now you only need to harness the potential of happy, accidental connections and turn them into fruitful relationships. “The key is to be more intentional about doing it [networking],” Henderschiedt said. Try taking part in an informational interview, not a job interview, but one where you ask questions to someone from the field you intend to enter. “This isn’t just meeting people at a party, this is getting to know people in a given field,” Henderschiedt said.
Talk to people. By making a point of discussing your work, you could accidently meet someone in your field. Capitalize on those opportunities. Having a real conversation about the things you’re passionate about with someone in your field could be the start of a real connection that you wouldn’t have made without reaching out to that person.
“The numbers are important. The more people you know, the better,” Henderschiedt said. “[But] you have to take it beyond the name. The quality of the relationship is important. Someone who knows you is going to be more useful than someone you’ve met once.” Take your accidental connections and intentionally form them into a meaningful professional relationship.
If, however, you’re looking to intentionally network, look to social media. “We’re all on social media anyway so it’s just an obvious first place to go. If someone is not connected on LinkedIn then I would suggest they get that hooked up,” Henderschiedt said. “Facebook is a very undervalued networking tool. If you start using it in a somewhat professional way, if you can do something a little more intentional and recognize the potential in that—that’s powerful.”
Networking doesn’t have to be the intimidating, adult, intentional career building that we’ve thought it to be. Create your brand and hold fast to it, whether it’s that of future Fortune 500 CEO, the real-life Elle Woods or a Shakespeare incarnate. Whatever your field, simply represent yourself well. “If you can get a consistent brand of being intelligent and personable – people notice,” Henderschiedt said. You are talented. Believe that, show the best version of yourself to everyone you meet, and take pride in your work. The connections will follow.