Networking is all the rage these days, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy.

Many people find networking difficult and often try to avoid it, especially those who see themselves as introverts.

The view of networking as something troubling is partly a result of the myth that it’s all about what you get. In fact, networking should be just as much (if not more) about what you give.

By being open and inviting your network in, you encourage others to do the same, benefitting everybody involved.

Beyond the fact that you’re probably networking already – and perhaps just don’t realize it – you simply can’t afford not to. Professional networks need not be wholly detached from personal ones, and can be a source of career-changing opportunities. They are a continual fountain of knowledge, inspiration, and inside information.

Here is our guide to how you can build, use, and maintain a professional network – including a list of questions to help you make connections at networking events.

How to build a network

First, look around you. You’re already networking.

Your friends, family, contacts, classmates, and work colleagues are all part of your personal and professional network. (These shouldn’t be mutually exclusive – though some, or most, of your personal one may be largely irrelevant to your professional life).

Networking begins when you recognize that you have a professional network, and when you then start to offer professional advice, insight, or assistance to people in that group. Before long you’ll get something in return.

Expanding that network can be achieved in 4 easy ways:

1) Attend networking events

Those disparaging of networking probably have a room full of strangers in mind, with nothing in common but business.

Most networking events that people actually attend are not like this.

Professional and personal events of all kinds are opportunities for networking. Professional events such as conferences, fairs, and workshops are the most obvious, but social events that attract a particular interest group – such as talks, launches, exhibitions, or openings – are also good places to meet like-minded, interesting people.

2) Join groups

Another great way to network is by joining a group based around a special interest. Within your workplace you might want to create or join a skillsharing or professional development group relating to a skill, objective, or subject of interest.

Leveraging the personal network you’ve already created through sports clubs, societies, or personal interest groups is also a good idea.

But networking is not always done face-to-face. Digital platforms are a great way to make connections with people who share an interest with you.

Joining groups on social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn can help you grow your network, as can following companies and individuals you’re interested in, interacting with them when you have something meaningful to say.

3) Don’t take it too seriously

Professional networking is not a competition. You’re not being judged on your performance or ability, and people of very different backgrounds, interests, and ambitions can find overlaps in their career objectives that may help them support each other in some way in the future.

Consider networking as simply having conversations. Sharing experiences, stories, and information in the hope of learning something new.

You can hardly fail. But if you do, just have another conversation another time and see how that works out. Not every person you talk to needs to form part of your network.

If the conversation goes well, you’re likely to stay in touch. Don’t be reluctant to add or follow someone on social media after having an interesting chat.

Being relaxed, composed, and confident will help you network much more effectively, and will ensure you have a good time while doing so.

4) Pitch yourself

When the time is right, you will have the opportunity to pitch. This may well be to a potential employer, but it could also be to someone who you may be interested in collaborating with in the future.

Adjust your tone to fit the formality of the situation.

Pitching is all about preparation, so be sure to have created an elevator pitch, or professional introduction, ahead of time.

The aim is to explain who you are, what you do, and why you do it in the time it takes to take an elevator.

Some useful networking questions

Always begin networking conversations by judging whether or not a person is interested in talking to you. If not, let things peter out naturally. On some occasions they may be talking to you principally out of politeness.

Be sure to get across what your interests are.

Asking the right questions helps to get to the bottom of whether or not the conversation will be interesting to either party. It also has the advantage of avoiding small talk and getting to the point.

With networking, it’s not the quantity that matters, but the quality.

It’s best to ask open-ended questions that you want to know the answer to.

Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • How did you get involved in…?
  • What advice would you give someone who is just starting out?
  • What do you enjoy most about what you do?
  • What do you see as the big changes coming up in the industry?
  • What would make someone the ideal employee for your company or organisation?
  • What experience did you have to get this job?
  • What is the toughest part about your job?
  • What skill do wish you had that you don’t?
  • What other people do you recommend that I talk with?

The most important thing is to stay true to your interests and have a good time, but it can be very valuable to have some of these questions memorised so you are ready to make the most out of every opportunity.

Using (and maintaining) your network

Using your network involves reaching out to your contacts, or inviting and encouraging them to reach out to you.

You might want to arrange social events with one or more of your network to keep relationships fresh.

Updating and sharing on social media will help keep your contacts in the loop, and may be a reminder for them to get in touch.

But the most obvious way for you to keep your network active is to offer assistance.

Whenever you are in a position to offer, advice, insight, or support to people in your network, do it. This way you’ll stay active and they’ll know who to come to when they have something to share.

Feel free to approach your network if you need a particular piece of advice or assistance, perhaps in looking for a new job. That’s what a network is for! The more you keep in touch with them, the better they will respond in future.

Networking Tips from Kathryn Minshew