How to Network in a New City
When I decided to move this summer from Memphis to Washington, D.C., the land where the mantra is "It’s not what you know, but who you know," I was panic-stricken. Networking? I hadn't ever navigated those murky and unfamiliar waters of business etiquette. I feared an abundance of clammy handshakes and tedious small talk. And in a new city filled with unfamiliar faces? I would have preferred to get a root canal than to attend my vision of a networking event.
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Luckily for my career and social life, I’ve learned quickly from veterans who have spent years honing their networking skills, and it’s far easier and more pleasant than I had imagined.
Your goal is to eventually find a trusted mentor or two you can reliably reach out to when you need help. Let me show you how to do it.
Start With People You Know
Establish a base of support in your new city before you move there, if possible. Before coming to the nation’s capital, I reached out to one of my friends from college. I had a friendly face to greet me at the airport and a place to sleep my first night visiting the city. As I settled in, I had my own personal tour guide and companion, who showed me how to easily navigate D.C.’s public transportation, pointed out hot spots around town and introduced me to new people. (Thanks, Ashley.)
Make Your Own Networking Events
For those of us who feel much more comfortable interacting one-on-one than maneuvering our way through a huge group, informational interviews are some of the lowest-pressure, highest-reward networking opportunities. After a recent tour of the National Public Radio headquarters in D.C., I reached out to the editor who led the tour and asked him to join me the following week for coffee. Through talking with him, I learned about the work culture at a major news outlet, as well as a number of helpful hints on how to succeed as a journalist and take advantage of a city that was not familiar to me. For the mere cost of the courage I summoned to ask him to meet with me, I created a valuable connection with a veteran in the field who I can call on for advice.
Informational interviews are easy to set up. Simply invite someone (even an experienced co-worker) in the field you are interested in to grab a cup of coffee or lunch with you. "I think people – no matter what city or community they live in – will definitely help you when you network with them, assuming you approach them in the right way," says James Francavilla, chief development officer for the Chesapeake region of the American Red Cross. Francavilla has used networking to get all but one of the jobs he’s held throughout his career.
Make sure the people you are reaching out to know that you are not asking for a job interview but that you simply want to learn more about the ins and outs of the profession. "It’s really about setting that expectation, that you are wanting to pick people’s brains," Francavilla says. Odds are, you’ll gain valuable knowledge about the industry and establish a new connection. An added bonus: If you make a good impression, they might suggest your name the next time they hear of job openings in the field.
Keep in mind that networking does not have to be confined to business settings. Join a kickball team to make connections, or strike up a conversation with a stranger as you sip wine at an art exhibit opening, and you’ll soon find your circle growing.
On the digital front, LinkedIn is a great way to connect with people, as long as you keep your profile updated and your picture professional and inviting. (Attention: no selfies or Solo cups!) I follow the Washington, D.C., Young Professionals group for career advice and job opportunities, and I also follow my college’s alumni group to find people I might know in the area.
Scour sites such as Meetup.com and Eventbrite.com regularly for networking events and social gatherings where you can make business connections, friends and even dates. Not all networking events have the word "networking" neatly tucked in their titles, so keep your eyes open for "panels," "roundtable discussions" and similar events with different names.
Being unfamiliar with navigating a new city can bump up your stress level. After taking a wrong turn on my way to an informational interview recently, I found myself standing outside of Starbucks frazzled and sweaty, out of breath and beating myself up inside for being rude by making my coffee companion wait. Since that day, I always add at least five to 10 minutes to my estimated commute time to ensure that I have a few minutes to compose myself before any networking event.
If you know who you are meeting ahead of time, glance at their bio or LinkedIn profile. That way, you can strike up meaningful conversations about similar interests. Before meeting recently with an Egyptian reporter who writes for both U.S. and Egyptian media, I read some of his stories. This gave me some insight into his job and life, offering several key topics to discuss so I didn’t have to deal with any moments of awkward silence.
This is critical: Don’t view people simply as a means to advance in your career. Your conversations should be meaningful and your interest in others genuine. Be yourself and share your passions because if you find a common thread between you and the person you are networking with, your bond will be stronger.
If you are starting out in a new city, it is likely that a majority of those with whom you’ll network are more seasoned than you. Be sure to show respect for their seniority, but view them as fellow human beings, not titles. Let their rank be a guide for topics of conversation, but don’t let it make you shrink from sharing opinions or being engaging. If your personality doesn’t shine through, it is likely they will forget you.
Bring business cards, and don’t be afraid to share them. If you don’t have business cards from your work, create your own through sites such as Vistaprint.com ($20, plus $9.99 for shipping). Keep them simple and professional with your name, phone number and an e-mail address you check regularly.
The Importance of Follow-Up
What’s the point of making a wonderful connection if it doesn’t last? Immediately after an event, pull out the business cards you collected and jot down notes about the people you would like to stay in contact with, Francavilla suggests. I write a few points directly on the back of business cards, such as where the person is from, what we discussed and what some of his or her interests are. This jogs my memory later and ensures my future interactions with them are meaningful.
The best way to follow up with someone is a simple, professional e-mail to let him or her know how much you enjoyed your meeting. This is a great way to make a lasting impression and open the door for future interactions.
One of the most crucial pieces of advice Francavilla gives to young networkers: When you contact people, always end your conversations, whether through an e-mail or phone call, by asking them if there is anything you can do for them. Even if you are young and just starting out in a new city, you likely still have something to offer. Make it clear that you are willing and eager to give back.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Your level of networking success will depend mainly upon your attitude. If you view networking as a frightening and awkward experience, chances are it will be. But if you anticipate it being an enjoyable way to meet new people, eventually it will get easier. Be confident and positive, and the more you practice, the sooner you’ll be a pro.