September / October 2019

Networking in a Digital Age

LeAnna M. Pearson

In a world dominated by social media and online profiles, the art of getting to know someone has been transformed. So, in this age, when you can connect with someone by “swiping right” on a dating app, how do you build a professional network? Face-to-face interactions remain a great starting point. Therefore, whenever I attend a conference or other professional event, I make sure that I am rested and ready to network.

Networking is not something that came to me naturally. It is a skill I have honed throughout my career, and I will likely keep working on it as my role changes. Below are some of my networking tips, which focus on the prep work, in-person work, and follow-up.

Prep Work

For any conference or meeting, ask yourself ahead of time, “What do I want to get out of this networking event?”

To come up with your game plan, think about the size and length of the event. Your strategy for a 40-person meeting will be different from your strategy for a conference attended by 4,000. If you’re going to a single-night event, make sure you set at least one goal and achieve it! If you’re participating in a multiday event (these can be exhausting), you might set two or three goals to achieve. Goals may be as simple as meeting someone from your dream company, talking with a particular speaker, or connecting with five new people.

Once you’ve set your goals, do your homework so you’re ready to accomplish them. Exhibition halls are daunting even for the most skilled navigators, and you will be amazed at how long talking to just five vendors can truly take. Knowing that it’s easy to get distracted, I like to plan ahead of time where I will go based on the people I want to talk to.

As part of your prep, use social media to your advantage. Find out who will be tweeting from the event and what LinkedIn posts there are, and re-tweet or follow participants. Of course, use good judgment to make sure that your professional self is present when you’re online.

Finally, plan your schedule, making time to meet new people. At a large conference or networking event, it is so easy to fall into hanging out with your friends or other people you know. I try to plan at least one evening or event where I am not spending time with a friend or colleague. This was a tip I was given a long time ago, and it was very hard for me to follow, even though I’m an extrovert. If you have someone you see as mentor, ask them what after-hour events they recommend. If they invite you along, accept the invitation!

In-Person Interactions

While networking, remember: The easiest thing to talk about is the person you are talking to. Just let the other person speak. When I was starting out, I found this advice to be hilarious, but it is so very true.

When I find myself wanting to meet someone but am unsure of what to ask them, I keep a few “loaded” questions on hand:

  • How did you get into this field or job?
  • What is something about your job that still surprises you?
  • Is this your first ISPE (or other) event? Follow up by asking them about the other events or how long they have been with ISPE.
  • What is your favorite thing about this city? This is a great question for big conferences held in cities that are fun to explore—if there is something everyone likes to talk about, it is having fun.

As you network, be in the moment! This is real life, so shake hands, make eye contact, and don’t fidget with your phone or watch. I can’t tell you how rude and disrespectful you will seem if you are only partially engaged. It makes the person feel like you are not interested in them, and that can create a lasting impression you don’t want to make.

Do not be afraid to talk to anyone. Yes, you will meet people with intimidating titles. But guess what? They are people just like you, and at some point, they too were new to networking and meeting people they admired. So, instead of being afraid, be respectful and say “hi” to them. You never know where this encounter might lead.

Following Up

A key to networking is remembering your connections. I like to ask new acquaintances for a business card. Then, after I finish my conversation, I make a few quick notes on the back of the card to help me remember them and them remember me. This way, when I email them or connect with them on LinkedIn, I can say, “It was so great hearing about your rock climbing adventures in Ireland at the Affiliate meeting. I hope we can stay in touch, and I look forward to hearing about your next adventure.” This shows them that I truly want to connect with them and they are more than a business card to me.

When following up, don’t wait too long—but don’t be too eager. After a long conference, I am zonked; I am lucky if I can spell my own name and board the correct flight home. I typically wait about a week after the event to connect. This gives me time to sift through my inbox (because work and life never stop) and digest the whole conference experience.

For any conference or meeting, ask yourself ahead of time, “What do I want to get out of this networking event?”

After you first connect, reconnect. I always appreciate the individuals who reach out and ask how I am doing. I never realized the value of these types of messages until I received some myself. Now I make it a point to check in with others from time to time. By taking just the few moments to see how a connection is doing or what is new in their job, you let them know they are not just another name in your contacts list.