We hear all the time how important connections are to climbing the ladder in the professional world. It doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in, success, many times, comes down to who you know. But what if you don’t know anyone? Not all of us are blessed with a natural knack for communications, a job history that gave us a Rolodex full of contacts when we left, or just those someones who seem to always know someone when you need them.
When you’re trying to get ahead and get your foot in the door, what do you do when it seems like no one will give you the time of day? How do you get your voice heard?
Here are my top tips on how to stand out and make sure you really click with the people you want to connect with on a professional level.
6 Secrets to Making Professional Connections from Scratch
1) Be Forthright
Here’s a mistake so many of us make, regardless of what we’re trying to accomplish or with whom. We tend to “bury the lead” in our requests to the people we want to connect with. For the professionals around us, time is very limited and very valuable. While we may be concerned about coming off as inauthentic or like we’re trying to leech off of them, being vague about why we want to talk, have dinner, or grab a cup of coffee is annoying and a turn-off.
It’s already starting on the wrong foot!
For professionals, there is nothing wrong with saying that you want to talk about fundraising over dinner, and you’ll buy. You can tell them you want advice on this specific aspect of the industry you’re both in, or that you’re interested in working together on a project, and you want some of their time. Just tell them why.
You might perceive it as coming on too strong. The vast majority of professionals out there, however, will appreciate the candor. Beating around the bush works to your detriment. Be forthright.
2) Understand What You Offer
When approaching someone to make a connection, we usually already have in mind why we want to connect with them. The relationship will, in some way, be advantageous to you or your business. A mistake is to only be thinking about what they can offer you.
Instead, gear your mind to think about your own business, whether you are representing one or representing yourself as an entrepreneur: what do you offer? Remember, these professional networking connections go two ways. They work best as mutually advantageous.
This isn’t to say launch into an elevator pitch. What it is to say is don’t immediately launch into talking about what you want from them. Part of being noticed is understanding what you uniquely bring to the table. How are you changing the game? What do you offer? Whether this is an investor relationship, a mentor, or something else entirely, you have to know that you will bring real value to your connections…and sell that value.
And if you can't figure out what you offer? Maybe you need to go back to the drawing board.
3) Build It and Go to Them
Networking in the digital age has created many superficial connections that don’t actually translate into real working relationships, investors, or support systems. Whether it’s Facebook pages, Instagram profiles, LinkedIn networks, or other social media constructs, these platforms give us a faulty sense of following and community that asks for as little as it receives.
We can tell ourselves we’re putting ourselves out there, but in reality, we’re one of many millions in the void, and the connections are highly superficial. It is not enough to create a page or add a friend, just as it is not enough to simply open a business.
You have to do real legwork. Build it and then go. Leveraging digital tools is a great thing, but don’t make the mistake of believing that your digital presence or your digital following is indicative of real-world support or real-world conversions. You have to go and get these things for yourself through real conversations and connections.
4) Be Beneficial
How many of us spend all of our energy looking for ways to get other people to help us? What if we’re approaching things the wrong way? While there is always something to be said for reaching out not being afraid to make that ask, we have to be willing to give, too. Be that person or that company who will sponsor a cause. Be the person who will step up and mentor. If you want to be known, make yourself known. You will make more of an impact by doing than by asking. You may feel you do not have the resources, but even with limits, you can change things for good and get noticed doing it.
5) Be Intentional and Targeted
That brings us to my next point: intentionality. Too many of us approach connections with a “shotgun blast” kind of approach. It doesn’t matter who we hit, as long as it’s a big name with deep pockets! A better strategy is to target people who have a better chance of having long-term interest in you and your business.
You want to seek out connections and investors who share similar passions and concerns: those who will understand, empathize, and more readily want to support what you do. This not only will make it easier to get people on board, but it will make it easier to maintain long-term connections.
6) Keep It Positive and Pleasant
Making connections can be frustrating, particularly after one too many emails left ignored and calls gone to voicemail. If you feel that you keep hitting dead ends, don’t take it out on the person you want to connect with.
If you guilt the other person for (supposedly) ignoring you or putting you off, you’re not going to do much to nurture the potential connection. You might feel burned or hurt and want to express those feelings, but it won’t help your case to point out whatever faux pas you feel has been committed.
Instead, try to make the other party feel good. If they bring it up, be gracious. If they don’t, you don’t. If they don’t want to connect, move on. Remember, these connections don’t happen in a vacuum, and if you are perceived as badgering someone, word will get around.
It is better to be gracious and positive, even if you don’t feel like it and even if the other person doesn’t particularly deserve it.
In all things, remember the reputation is paramount. No matter how good you are at your job, what industry you operate in, or what unique vision you offer, a good reputation will take you far and a bad reputation will bring you down. Guard it.
Be persistent and take risks to make connections, but not at the cost of your reputation or your integrity. Making these lasting professional connections takes time, strategy, and finesse.
If you put in the work, you will reap the rewards in due time.
What's the best lesson on networking you've ever learned? Share your most insightful networking experience in the comments.