Plus: how to network meaningfully, virtually
Why I started networking
It all started from a powerful revelation I had partway through my career when I felt stuck – what was stopping me from taking on the role that my manager had? Why wasn’t I seen as the right fit to be promoted into that position?
I was initially frustrated that he was brought on board instead of me being able to move up. I made the conscious decision to understand what value he brought to the role that I didn’t have, and to fill that gap so I could move up.
On paper, my manager and I had fairly similar skills and qualifications. But really, the main differentiator was that he was an entrepreneur prior to the role, and in having built his own business, he developed a vast network that was considerably wider and deeper than I had ever developed within my usual circles from work and/or school.
Why was this important? Because whenever we had a problem, he always had someone to call. We needed more people for our customer support team – he knew a person. We were looking for marketing agencies – he knew a person. We needed to strengthen growth KPIs through partnerships – he knew people. Here I was, giving all my time and energy as an individual contributor, being the proverbial frog in the well that didn’t know of a greater world out there. I was stuck doing things the hard way when I could’ve been doing things the smart way.
Additionally, since he’d built his own business, he’d learned a lot more than most people do in just doing school. When attacking new problems, he brought a sense of savvy and business acumen that you can only earn by having been put through a never ending series of problems.
I concluded very simply that I needed to do more interesting things, and meet more people doing interesting things to get where I need to be. (Interesting is a broad category of what probably constitutes value, usefulness, and things that are unique). And really, if you’re already doing at least one of those things fairly well, you’ll get places.
Okay, so where was I supposed to start?
First: go to where the people are. (Pre-COVID times)
I moved to Toronto at the end of 2017, a city where I essentially knew no one and had no family. I had been working at a high growth startup in Hong Kong prior to the move, and I knew I wanted to explore more of the up and coming tech scene in Toronto.
I asked around in my existing network of friends and acquaintances to try and figure out my bearings. Where should I go? What names of people, companies, places should I know?
TechTO was the big event that kept coming up in my research as the answer to the question: “Where do all the tech people go to meet other tech people?” It seemed daunting at first to show up to a big conference hall filled with hundreds of people that I didn’t know, but I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I took everything one step at a time to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
This was the checklist to conquer an event with hundreds of attendees:
- Get event tickets, and commit to go. Paying for the ticket made it real. Putting it on my calendar made it real. Putting my preparation time blocks prior to the event made it real (for example: putting into my calendar the night before what to pack and get ready. Then before the event, blocking out the time needed to get ready and travel to venue.)
- Get business cards. This seemed obvious enough to me as I’d attended industry trade shows and conferences in the past. It was pretty fun to design and put together my own card on Vistaprint. I printed one side only because it was cheaper, but also if I wanted to use the blank back of one to write notes or to allow others to write notes it was available. What was printed was the immutable: all my contact information, as simple as possible. Whether the person used the contact information depended if they remembered me. See: ready your pitch. However, having your personal website on the card is a great way to remind someone if they forget.
- Bring a pen. Notepad optional. I realized later as I did this more often that what worked best for me was to have a good quality gel pen that dries quickly so that you could scribble on a variety of card stock when given business cards. If I didn’t get a business card from someone, I would scribble short notes on the back of one of my own cards.
- Try not to go with a buddy. Yes, it is a lot harder to go alone because it’s stressful and anxiety-inducing. However, in the best case scenario, you end up ditching them because you actually do go talk to many other people. Worst case, you end up only speaking with your friend all night and don’t make a single connection. If you can swing it, just go alone. I promise you that while it’s scary at first, you’ll learn more about yourself and others than you ever will if you don’t do something so bold.
- Ready your pitch. I’ll talk about this in depth in the next section.
- Be clear with your objectives. My favorite thing about attending TechTO was how straightforward it was. When arriving at the reception, you’re given a blank label and choice of Sharpie color. If you were looking for a job, you used blue. If you were looking to hire, you used red. Black was for everyone else. Great! I instantly knew which labels to look for and who to talk to.
- Practice your entry/exit move. As terrifying as it seems to strike up a conversation with a stranger out of nowhere, it seems worse to try to get out of one. I’ll share some phrases that might help you, and that you can practice so that when the time comes you don’t freeze.
I truly and genuinely enjoy meeting new people. Note that this isn’t a prerequisite to get good at networking, but it definitely helps, as you’ll be intrinsically motivated and have the energy for it. However, by sharing my processes here I’m certain that anyone less extroverted but equally determined can improve their chances of success at meeting awesome people.
What to say, how to say it
There are a few things that I found I used over and over again, to great effect.
Your elevator pitch
One of the most important things you could ever do to help yourself move forward in your career and your life is to have a succinct and uniquely descriptive way to introduce yourself. Whether it’s Tinder or LinkedIn, knowing how to get strangers to grok who you are quickly is an extremely valuable skill, and while you won’t necessarily get it right off the bat, just like almost all other things you get better at it if you work at it.
If you don’t know how to sell yourself, it’s much harder for others to see you the way you want to be seen. Additionally, in an attention economy where attention is the scarcest resource, you want to make it as convenient and straightforward as possible for someone to understand who you are without undertaking too much effort.
When you’re young, inexperienced, and don’t really have any idea what you’re good at or what you are meant to do, it’s obvious why forming a clear pitch about yourself isn’t easy. You’re still growing, and you’re a flawed human; how can you possibly fit your multitudes into a catchy 5-10 word sentence?!
The best way to go about forming your pitch is to leverage two different skills: the ability to be truly introspective, and the ability to gather feedback in a measured way.
I’ve used the Japanese concept of Ikigai frequently to think about where I am in life and where I want to be. The center perfect overlap of all four circles is an ideal that many may not ever actually achieve all in the same one thing, but that’s why we lead separate lives with different activities, jobs, and hobbies. I find this is a really informative and insightful framework to use every so often.
Be introspective: ask yourself what you see as your greatest strengths and what you excel at. Don’t conflate your strengths with your passions; you may love music, but be unskilled or without much prior experience. You should be fairly clear on what you love and what you’re good at. Being clear about your passions (what you love + what you’re good at) is always a great way to lead an authentic introduction to who you are – and if that doesn’t necessarily align with your profession, that’s fine too! You might be a suit in your day job, and a moonlighting starving artist (so you’re not actually starving).
Get feedback: ask those closest to you, and those who have worked with you in a professional capacity or in some capacity where they would see you perform like a sports team. What do they actually say about you, and observe about your behavior? You may be saying that you love to be a team player, but if candid and honest feedback from teammates prove otherwise, you’ve got to close that discrepancy by either changing your beliefs about yourself or to change your behavior. It normally ends up somewhere in between.
Think comprehensively, then pare it down: I find the best way to distill your essence is to start with many parts of yourself. It can be as chaotic or organized as you like – a word cloud, flow chart, paragraphs of text, but using any combinations of words to describe you. Remove those that are irrelevant by gathering feedback from the audience you want to cultivate to know what’s important and what’s not. If you have a large “database” of words that make up You, the Person, it also makes your job easier later to extract specificities to allow you to easily craft different dimensions of yourself or styles/formats to different audiences.
Versions: An elevator pitch in person at a professional event is different from an introduction about yourself to a virtual community, is different from the summary on your resume, etc. Some common use cases are for your LinkedIn profile, in introductory emails, and meetings with new professional connections. Know the audience, know the right tone, and just practice practice practice until you finesse it.
Enter fresh, exit stage left
Although this information may not really be of any use to anyone during a global pandemic, here’s how I handled every large room of dozens if not hundreds of strangers.
To break into a conversation, you can choose among a few options.
- Speak with a loner. Often the best ways to immediately get on the same page with someone, you already have one thing in common: not talking to anyone in particular at this particular moment. However, you should also learn to be confident in how you can explicitly close out the conversation and move on, otherwise it gets awkward and boring pretty quickly.
- Speak with a 3-4 person circle. If you are pretty good at reading people and a room, you might notice if it’s a group of 4 strangers or if it might be 2-3 people who know each other with 1-2 other new people. Hover close for about a minute to listen in on the current conversation, and enter either by participation or by straight up interruption.
- Join a 5-10 person circle. This is one of the least anxiety-inducing groups to approach in some ways; there might be smaller 1-2 person conversations within the larger circle, or there are just people hanging around in the vicinity waiting for an opportunity to join in. It’s easy to blend in and also easy to fade out.
Types of entry points and phrases:
- The “I asked you first”: If you’re extremely nervous and really not good around people, this is the suggested approach to take to literally every single human you can try to start a cold conversation with. You’ll learn far more by using this method consistently in the beginning, and when you practice with more people and feel more comfortable about when to insert yourself and when to move on, you can employ other tactics. It’s also a great study into the human condition to meet humans who are somewhere else on that nervousness scale – if you’re too jittery to talk about yourself at length, then heck, let someone else do the talking. Example: “Hey, I’m Andrea. This is my first tech event. How about you? What brings you to this event?”
- The hover and topical insertion: Hover nearby for about a minute or two to listen in on what’s being discussed. If you can find an opportune gap in the conversation, you can insert yourself by participating in the same theme of discussion. If you don’t know how to participate, a genuine question of interest is a good way to open things up. Example: “Hey, did I hear you just mention machine learning workshops? I’m interested in conversational AI, do you know if they run any workshops on that?”
- The straight up interrupt: If you’re at a large scale event and the point is to make new connections, then just do it. If you’re not interrupting some really deep conversation flow, in some cases you may even be saving someone from tedious small talk that they wanted to move on from. Example: “Hey, sorry to interrupt! I’m Andrea. How are you doing? How you enjoying the event so far?”
Types of exit points and phrases:
- The disingenuous: I had to list this first because people think this is mostly harmless, when in fact it is not. To get out of a conversation you might use going to the washroom or getting a new drink as an excuse. Generally, don’t do this. Your conversation partner might not be sure if it sounds like you’re coming back or not. You can certainly employ this tactic multiple times over an evening with lots of different people, but it’s not a valid end to a conversation. Don’t do it. Example: “Hey, listen, I just have to go the washroom. Good chat. Enjoy your evening.”
- The Always Be Closing: I assume you, reader, are maybe not a natural salesperson. If you were, I don’t think you would’ve read it this far. If you want to take a couple pages out of a good salesperson’s playbook (I emphasized good, as I suppose there are some negative connotations with pushy salespeople in the universe), here it is. You have already established some trust and understanding with a person in a short 5-15 minute chat. There likely aren’t other topics of interest to explore. Wrap it up by nudging to an explicit end with an ask – state the conversation was great, and before moving on make sure to leave a calling card. Example: “It was good to meet you and learn about what you’re working on. I’m going to go meet some more new people, but before I go – here’s my card – you can contact me if you or anyone you know ever need a digital marketing specialist.”
- The summarizer: Just as you would conclude an essay, you might signal the end of a fruitful conversation by recalling a couple of interesting points, paraphrasing in your own words, and then thank the other person for their time. In my humble opinion, this is possibly the most respectful way to make a real impact and to practice your conversational skills in the most advanced domain: using active listening. If you can get past monotonous small talk and pick up one or two unique details about the person you’re speaking to, and frame your recognition of those details in a way that shows your sincere interest, that person will likely remember you for a long time to come. Example: “It sounds like a lot of work organizing women in tech meetups so frequently, but it sounds like it’s really rewarding. I enjoyed learning about your entry into data science from a more traditional sector like oil & gas. Good luck and enjoy the rest of your evening! Let’s keep in touch on LinkedIn.
Go to where the people are (virtually, in a post-COVID world)
Thanks for reading all the way up to here, and bearing with me while I explained how I talked to strangers at large events that essentially are no more until we can resume a post-COVID life.
But wait! Don’t go! I have a process for networking virtually as well. What I described earlier with large events was the gatherer approach; once I started to build the foundations of my network, I figured out how best to fill the gaps by a hunter approach.
The gatherer approach built a more broad-based and generalized set of categories of industries, spaces, interests, and skillsets. Once I talked to more people and started learning a bit more about what I liked and didn’t like, that allowed me to hone in on specific domains that interested me more. For career objectives, I also prioritized making more effort to network with people more senior than myself to pave more pathways of opportunity.
In a virtual setting, the gatherer approach falls short; I attended Collision from Home a few weeks ago, and while they tried to add a handful of features to emulate some of what ambiance and serendipitous connection you would get from attending a large conference, it’s just not the same. However, it’s relatively easy to target specific domains of interest and knowledge, so here are the ways I do it.
Find communities, and become a part of them
I have tried these virtual community spaces:
- Facebook groups
- Slack workspaces
- LinkedIn groups
- Product Hunt
- Discord Servers
I love tech, startups, and business, so I found some of the best and most active groups tended to be in more exclusive Facebook groups and some large public Slack workspaces. I have discovered which spaces I’m more familiar with now and have interesting people to engage with, so I’ve written a short blurb about using each of them.
As someone in the tech industry, where every single tech company I know of uses Slack for work communication, it’s a no-brainer that relevant interest groups and communities also end up on Slack. There are many extremely helpful communities with resources for topics like product management, to identity groups such as women in tech.
To get an invite to some of the public communities, you would normally start your search to land on a website related to your interest, such as Women Who Code. Many of the large communities are public and don’t cost anything to join, but there are also more niche or exclusive ones that require a membership to join.
Once you’ve joined a Slack community, most of the large ones tend to have channels reserved for new member introductions. I always have a tailored introduction about myself, about 5-10 sentences depending on the prevailing culture of the existing crowd. To understand what the vibe is like, just scroll around and read some of the main channels and see how people interact before working on your intro. A message worded in a format that is closer to the average behavior in the slack will elicit better engagement and response. So if people are relatively active and engaged such as in smaller niche communities, and newbies write detailed intros of 2-3 paragraphs, then use that as your format as well. If people are quite brusque, then don’t get too wordy. You get the idea.
Slack hack: Once you’ve introduced yourself and you’ve done it in a way that is engaging, occasionally you’ll get people who might reach out to you to connect and chat. So if you’re looking for a job, or a mentor, or a study partner etc, then make that ask in your intro – it’s your chance to take the little soapbox and make the most of it. Elevator pitch, folks! And if you don’t get much response, lurk a little and pay attention to the most active users, and reach out to them to get a conversation started to see if they can point you in the right direction.
Why is Twitter valuable? I am paraphrasing (perhaps poorly from memory) something famous venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said about his choice of reading material is between books or Twitter, due to value based on time to print. You need to know what is happening right now RIGHT NOW? You get on Twitter; you don’t wait for the 12-24 hour news cycle (although small caveat here: using Twitter wisely also means you understand the fact that because the cycle happens so fast you should be skeptical of everything until it gains credibility over time) and you also get a direct line of communication to some of the smartest and most interesting founders and creators and technologists. Books, the best ones, are still going to be the intellectual and innovation vanguard.
I had talked to so many people about the value of Twitter, and I had said so many times that I was going to write an extensive post about how to get into it, but now here we are and it’s a subset of a gargantuan post of stupidly long proportion. I may extend this out to its own post later as I learn more, but for someone who is still quite doe-eyed and bushy-tailed about working Twitter, here’s what’s worked for me so far.
How to make Twitter work for you:
- Sign up. Your username doesn’t necessarily matter too much as you are allowed to change it anytime provided the new username you want is available. I used to be @dreadotxyz because @andreachan was taken, but then I talked to the person who had @andreachan, negotiated, and then now I have it.
- Follow voices you know. This usually means actual people you know in real life, plus the most famous people you probably already follow on other social media or channels, but that’s okay. Start from the broader range of interests and known personalities, then you can slowly work your way to the really good stuff.
- Scroll through the timeline. Twitter’s timeline/feed is set to “Top Tweets” by default. You can click on the top right ✨ to change it to “Latest Tweets” – but personally, I find that the algorithm for Top Tweets does its job fairly well and surfaces things of interest at a good rate.
- Have conversations. Pay attention to conversation threads and engage with topics that interest you. Quality control has improved on Twitter somewhat but it’s still full of minefields of trolls and serious echo chamber, so enter at your own risk.
- Bonus/optional: Say things that matter. If you don’t want to deal with the potential ramifications of people actually noticing and having things to say in return, good/bad, then save it for another medium or don’t bother.
In general, you can likely find your tribe in any of these spaces/platforms, but it really is up to you to engage and try to talk to anyone. I’ve made some new internet friends in the past few months, and while it’s not the same as meeting in person, expanding the geographical range of those connections has been really exciting and novel.
As a tiny little footnote, as I really don’t think it’s worthwhile to go into the details, I keep track of all the people I meet and talk to on a professional basis in a spreadsheet. It’s really not complicated. I just write the date I talked to them, who it is, perhaps their LinkedIn profile, and a brief note about what we talked about. Whatever your method, it is always useful to take notes when it matters.
I hope that parts of this post were insightful or helpful, and to give you a little courage to go out there, and make some new connections. Your humanity requires it.