So I went to the Michigan Library Association a couple of weeks ago, which was my first conference experience and was really great. But what I learned was that I think I might actually be really good at networking.
I know. You’re thinking, “Networking is the. worst. I hate standing in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know so I feel super awkward (because let’s face it, I’m just awkward), and what am I even supposed to talk with these people about?”
The good news is that everyone else in the room feels the same way. Especially if it’s a bunch of librarians.
Now I want to let you in on my secret. I’m a student. (Yes, Emily, we knew that already.) No, really. I’m a student. That means that I actually have the most to gain at these kinds of things, and people know it. In fact, they expect to be approached by students. Not only do they expect to be approached by students, but they’re a little more forgiving when a student, rather than a professional, barges in on their already-happening conversations. Hey, I’m just a student, remember? I don’t know anything about social niceties. I’m just trying to learn.
That’s right. That is your new mantra. I’m trying to learn.
Flip that around, play with it a bit. “I’d like to learn more from you about X,” or “I’m trying to learn all that I can from professionals.” Whatever feels comfortable to you. Keep that in the back of your head as you’re talking to these people. It helps you focus on the fact that you’re not just talking to someone, you’re learning from them. It helps you feel a little more comfortable, and it helps them feel like they’re contributing to your education.
Ok, got it?
The hard part. Pick someone and go up to them. Even if they’re already talking to someone else. Even if they don’t look like they’re willing to talk with someone new. They’re at this “networking event,” aren’t they? (Note: if this is not a designated networking event, this tactic may be weird and bizarre. I’m not saying don’t try it, but you might want to give it a second thought.) Remember: you’re just trying to learn.
Once you’ve done the hardest part, which is working up the nerve to walk up to a stranger who looks like they have zero interest in you, everything is easier.
- Remember to shake hands and introduce yourself, especially that you’re a student at UMSI. If you have a related job, mention that, too.
- Be attentive and look the person in the eye. The whole time. Looking away or down at the floor indicates that you are nervous or insecure. You want to project confidence the whole time, even if you are panicking inside.
- Listen attentively, but keep an ear open for how you can talk about your own qualities or experiences that fit into the conversation.
- Try to come up with some questions to keep in your back pocket. What do you actually want to know? That way if there is a lull in the conversation, you can pull out a question (even one as lame as I have used many times, “What’s your favorite part about working at _____ library?”). It’s okay if your question sounds like you’re fishing for something to talk about. Remember, they’re awkward, too. It’s weird. Networking is weird. Once they start answering the question, everyone is relieved to have something to talk about, and it goes back to normal.
- SMILE. Genuinely.
Honestly, if you are confident and enthusiastic, that’s all they will really remember. And that’s a good thing, because you want them to remember that you are confident and enthusiastic, and they want to work with confident and enthusiastic people. They want to hire someone who is confident and enthusiastic.
Final tip, which I’m still getting around to finishing up, after the conference or event, send an email to everyone whose business card you got thanking them for taking the time to talk with you. Mention a few specifics about yourself so they remember who you are, and a little bit about your conversation. If it was a long event, mention specifically where you met them.
This final step of emailing people is essential to sealing the connection. It’s also crucial to be very short and to the point. You don’t want your reminder email to take up too much of this person’s time. For example, this is one that I sent earlier this week:
I just wanted to say that it was a pleasure to have met you at the MLA conference “Professional Connection” networking session. I really appreciated you taking time to talk with me about the importance of outreach for the future of libraries. As a student finishing her degree, I really benefit from every opportunity I have to make connections and talk with as many professionals as possible. I’ve been learning so much from my position with the _______ District Library, but I love the chance to learn more. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk with me about the ________ District Library.
Did you see what I did there?
- Pleasure to meet you at ________.
- What we talked about.
- I’m a student, remember me? My email address says umich at the end, you don’t need to say where you are from.
- I also work at this one library, do you remember me better now?
- I’m also interested in you and the library you work at.
Done. It takes 30 seconds to read, and it’s to the point. Professional but friendly, and it doesn’t sound desperate, either.
Do you want to know what I got back from that email?
It was a pleasure meeting you as well. I appreciate your enthusiasm and think that it is critical to be passionate about looking forward. I always feel it’s my personal responsibility to do as much as I can to ensure that librarianship and public libraries are viable for the next century. I think having robust outreach is critical to success and am heartened to hear that it is happening at _____ District Library.
Please feel free to stop in at _____ for a tour if you find yourself in this neck of the woods. If you are ever interested in working for ____, let me know what position you have applied for and I will have HR flag your application (in a good way).
In the meantime, best of luck with all of your endeavors and please tell [your director] I said hello.
Boom. Mic Drop.
tl;dr: Networking is weird, and everyone hates it, but be confident and just go up to someone and you will be just fine. Keep in mind that you are a student and you have a reason to go up to these people: to learn.