Growth happens outside of your comfort zone.
You read Part 1, and you are ready to network! Look at you go! You’ve been scouring social media for people to follow and connect with. You click on that message button to send them a DM. But...you talk yourself out of it. There are many possible reasons why. Maybe you have ADHD, and you are afraid you will say the wrong thing (this is one of the issues I deal with). Maybe you have social anxiety, and you struggle to talk to people. Maybe you are an introvert who would rather not talk to someone new. Maybe you think that you are just a mediocre newbie that nobody wants to talk to. This brings us to the second part of this networking series and addresses the questions I get asked about the most: “what if [fill in the blank]?” This is the hardest obstacle to overcome when it comes to networking for most people.
What do you and I have in common? I’m in the tech industry now. I’m a career changer. I have kids. I grew up in rural Wisconsin. I’m just a regular person. What about you and that head of engineering you want to talk to? What about the President of the United States? At the end of the day, regardless of title, position, social status, or otherwise, we are all people! Please remember this. You, a person, are reaching out to someone else who is also a person! We tend to give people more power than they deserve. It is incredibly stressful if you are approaching every interaction as one that could make or break your career. Don’t let a stranger have so much power over you!
There are two things we need to address before we can get into the strategies for getting up the nerve to talk to people. First, we are our own worst enemies. How often do you call yourself stupid or think of yourself as a nobody? If we talked to other people in the way we talked to ourselves, we wouldn’t want to talk to us either! But the thing is, we don’t talk to other people the way we talk to ourselves. We are much nicer than that. This brings up the second point—nobody thinks about you more than you! Before the pandemic, I worked part time as a personal trainer. So many people are afraid of the gym because of what other people might think about them. However, unless you are doing something dangerous or obnoxious, nobody is really thinking about you. They are too busy thinking about themselves! The same thing goes on in day-to-day life. How many people do you encounter every day and never think twice about them? When we are networking, though, we want people to remember us—and in a good way!
Reframing the Stress
Socializing can be stressful. Stressful things suck, so we don’t want to do them. But to quote Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” One solution to make socializing less stressful is to reframe the situation and thereby change our attitude from something that sucks to something that is fun or interesting (or tolerable, at the very least). This takes time and practice. Here are some ideas for reframing networking.
Remember when you were a kid, and you would go to the playground, and you would make a friend for that day? You had the best time together even though you didn’t know them! Networking is the grownup version of that. Find your friend for that chamber of commerce happy hour mixer or that online conference. Forget about your career (for now) and think about making friends instead of industry connections! It is much easier to meet someone as a person than a title or position.
If you have ever dealt with anxious thoughts, you may have been told to tell yourself that you are excited. As someone who has dealt with anxiety over the years, I have used this trick! Yes, even outgoing networking enthusiasts can have anxiety. Oh, my goodness, in a moment of confidence last week, you signed up to go to a meetup. Now the day is here, and the meetup is in two hours, and you don’t want to do it! Your stomach hurts, and your heart is pounding. I have been there! Try to reframe your thinking—oh my goodness, I am glad I signed up for that meetup, I’m so excited to meet some people in tech in my area and check out that new restaurant I have never been to before! When you get to the venue, do a few arm swings, and hop up and down a few times like an Olympic swimmer or MMA fighter getting ready to go! This is going to be great!
You can also think of the other person as a spider (or snake, or mouse, or another small but scary critter)—they are more afraid of you than you are of them! This is an exaggeration for comedic purposes, of course. The point is that they might also be nervous to talk to you. I have had coffee chats with several people who told me they don't like to reach out to other people, but they were happy to talk to me and glad I reached out to them! You might have a great conversation that never would have happened if you didn’t psych yourself up to send that DM!
Networking is a skill that requires practice like anything else. How did you learn to code? You probably followed along with someone who is an expert. Then you tried it yourself. Did you get it on the first try? Sometimes, but sometimes not. You needed to practice repeatedly until you had the syntax and theories and algorithms down. Just like there are videos, tutorials, and documentation for learning to code, there are different ways you can learn how to network until you become an expert!
Start with people you know or people who are on the edge of your social circle. For example, if you are new to the tech industry, I recommend joining the 100Devs Discord server . There are thousands of friendly folx who are in various levels of software engineering helping each other out—everyone from experienced senior engineers to newbies writing their first lines of HTML. You can also practice talking with your friends who aren’t in tech for practice. Find a meetup that you might know someone attending or for something you are interested in or good at already: DnD, mountain biking, art journaling, knitting, etc. The point is to practice, so when you do start reaching out to potential employers, you will have some confidence built up.
Bring a friend. This works for both in-person and virtual events. You are guaranteed to know someone, and it’s easier to hype someone else up instead of yourself. Discuss ahead of time how to approach the event. For example, if one of you is more comfortable talking than the other, if people are going around the room or zoom call introducing themselves, your friend can go first, introduce themselves, and then introduce you. This also works when you are meeting new people at an event.
Example script: “Hi everyone, my name is Bridget. I’m a new software engineer in Omaha. I’m here with my friend Leslie who is a talented front-end developer! We have never been here before, but since we are both in tech, we thought we would check out your group and see what it’s about."
Your new friend just got an excellent package deal of meeting two new people in the industry!
Lower the stakes. Even though we shouldn’t let people we don’t even know have power over us, the imbalance is still going to creep up occasionally. One way to do this is to reach out to people at companies that you are indifferent towards. That might sound shady but hear me out! You will feel less pressure if you are talking to someone who isn’t at your dream company. If you are less stressed, you will probably have a better conversation, and you might find out that this is a company that you want to work for. Now you have made a great connection there!
Set small goals in short timeframes. Don’t leave networking up to chance, because then it won’t happen. Give yourself one week to find one person to reach out to whether it is a stranger, or an acquaintance to talk to for practice. Find one event to attend by the end of the month. Hold yourself accountable and be sure to actually have the coffee chat or attend the event. You can slowly build up your goals as you gain confidence!
Finally, you are not bothering someone by reaching out to them. Remember you are a person reaching out to another person. Did you meet them at an event? One of the reasons people go to events, especially meetups and mixers, is to meet people. Are they on social media? The whole point of social media is to be social! Did you find their email online and are reaching out because you really want to work for their company? If they didn’t want people to send them emails, they wouldn’t have their email online. As long as you aren’t being rude, creepy, or spamming, you aren’t bothering them. If they don’t want to talk to you, they won’t answer your message. If they respond and say don’t message me again, respect their wishes. Otherwise, you are in the clear! No need to apologize or say, “sorry for bothering you.” You can review the messaging tips in Part 1.
These strategies should get you off to a good start for sending those first messages! Let me know if you tried any of them out and how it went! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me. I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s networking successes! Next in the series, we will talk about what to talk about when they message back and want to chat with you.
*Please note: if you are having severe anxiety or any other issues that are interfering with your day-to-day life, please contact a healthcare professional.