We hear it all the time. Networking is crucial.  It’s a tough economy – you have to sell yourself. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Ugh, right? Sounds like you better write yourself a catchy elevator pitch and sign up for some professional associations.

I’m definitely not a networker in the traditional sense (rubber-chicken lunches, meetings with people in my industry). I despise the idea of rubbing elbows with strangers for some intangible benefit that everyone says is important. But guess what? You can network without having to really network. I know because it’s the way I do it.

No schmoozing allowed

I don’t believe that networking for the sake of networking is very effective. And schmoozing “the right people”? People see right through it. Building a network, to me, is about friendships. And I’m good at making those. So here’s how I’ve done it:

  1. Start with your circle. You know people from work, your kids’ school, your neighborhood. Get to know those people. They’re your “natural network,” meaning they’re low-hanging fruit. It’s easier to talk to people you already know (even casually) than strike up conversations in awkward, organized settings. Later, it’s also easier to “tap” your acquaintances than that guy you met at that event where you were both there to benefit yourselves.
  2. Pretend you’re dating. My good friend Amy is one of the best listeners I know—the active kind who truly likes learning about other people. She and I have a long-running joke about dating. Whenever she goes out with a new guy, I always ask, “Would he pass the Amy quiz?” In other words, if I asked this guy early in the relationship a bunch of questions about Amy, would he know the answers? Or would he discover that he doesn’t know where she’s from or that she is a coffee nut, or that she loves barbequing with friends more than dining in any restaurant.
  3. Really get to know people. Ask questions. Be interested. Sure, some won’t reciprocate (a lot of people love to talk about themselves). But for me, it’s fun to learn about – and learn from – other people. What are they into? How did they get into the career they’re in? Why do they love Colorado? And on and on.
  4. Stay in touch. I know, it’s hard enough to stay in touch with close friends and family. But there is real value in staying connected with people. When I first started my writing business, 80 percent of my business came from a company I had left three years before. I had stayed in touch with people there, but because of turnover, the marketing director was someone I didn’t know. A former coworker put me in touch with her, though, and the rest is history. And even though she also has moved on from that company, she still hires me regularly. That’s just one example of many. Staying in touch is really the only way to maintain or grow your network.
  5. Give more than you receive. Serial networkers will tell you that it’s a two-way street, and I believe this. Again, for me, having a network is having a group of friends I’m comfortable turning to for help. But don’t always be that guy/girl who is asking for something. Do things for other people. Help them out. Be genuine. And do it to be nice, not because you want something in return.

Phew! That’s not so bad, right? Bottom line: Get to know people, be sincere, and be helpful. Do all that, and when the time comes that you need an introduction or advice or something else, your “network” will happily return the favor.

When it comes to networking, what’s worked for you? Share your ideas below.

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