Networking before the coronavirus: Meet for drinks, get wasted, become best friends, land the job. Networking after the coronavirus: Send an awkward email asking to meet on Zoom, never hear back, cry in the bathtub.
Needless to say, not being able to meet in-person has had a dramatic impact on the ways in which we network. No need to panic, though: If you need help putting yourself out there, I asked a handful of networking experts how to network in a world of Zoom happy hours and conference calls. Prepare to get hired, my friend.
Webinar It Up
If you have no idea where to start, tons of organizations have moved online to host all sorts of meetups and networking events. “Join professional organizations and Meetups in your field,” says business communication coach Nancy Ancowitz, author of Self-Promotion for Introverts. “Volunteer, host and co-host as well. Look for opportunities to speak and facilitate. Doing so raises your visibility in your field, establishing you as a resource. Also, pick from the endless selection of free webinars, many of which allow you to see the other participants. Ask thought-provoking questions and comment on other peoples’ questions.”
Do Your Homework
Once you find someone you want to connect with, make sure to research them. “First, read their bio on LinkedIn or elsewhere,” says Ancowitz. “That will tell you what they want you to know about them. Then, search for them online to possibly fill in the pieces. Figure out what you have in common. You both speak several languages? Terrific. You both wear pocket squares? Awesome. You both have volunteered for a social justice cause? Your Venn diagram is all lit up and blinking! If you can’t find anything in common, you can show curiosity in something from their background.”
If Possible, Find a Common Friend
Having friends in high places is always helpful, especially when it comes to networking and connecting with a new person. “See if you know someone in common who can introduce the two of you, which is usually a more successful approach than reaching out to someone you don’t know,” Ancowitz says. “LinkedIn is often a useful resource for discovering who you know in common.”
If nobody comes to mind…
Send an Authentic, Personalized Message
Copying and pasting the same old message is tempting, I know. However, this is where you want to put your homework on display. “The ultimate goal is to set up a phone or conference call, since in-person visits over coffee, lunch or drinks are pretty much out of the question,” says Patti DeNucci, author of The Intentional Networker. “You can plant the seed for this by sending along a personalized email, LinkedIn message or voicemail. The big thing is to not use a script and to make sure to provide some kind of value to them. Smart people can smell a looming sales pitch or the request for a favor from a mile away.”
As an example, DeNucci relays a recent instance of someone reaching out to network with her. “A friend connected me with a man who wanted me to be on his podcast,” she explains. “That sounded fun — flattering for sure, but I don’t accept all of these invitations. I looked him up and liked what I discovered. This guy had done his homework — he researched me — and in emailing me, he made a fun and positive reference to the very small college in Wisconsin where I got my degree. Also, it turns out we grew up less than 100 miles from each other. I don’t think anyone has ever mentioned my alma mater or home state in an introductory email!”
“Moreover,” DeNucci continues, “the personality of his correspondence sounded positive and without any hint of being scripted or inauthentic. No big words trying to impress and no underlying sales pitch, either. We set up a get-to-know-each-other Zoom call a few days later, and it was delightful. I’ll be on his podcast in the fall, have no doubt that it will be a great conversation, will be happy to help him promote his business and feel that we each made a new friend.”
You should also be upfront, either in your initial email or once you hop on a call, about the coronavirus and how you wish you could meet in-person, instead. “Everybody’s in the same boat, so everybody knows it’s a weird situation,” says career strategist Daisy Swan. Zoom networking is our new reality, and we all understand the awkwardness and struggles that come with this.
Put Your Best Virtual Self Forward
If you decide to hop on the phone, you have less to worry about. But if you opt for a Zoom call, make yourself and your background presentable. “I just taught an online class at NYU on presenting your best self virtually,” Ancowitz says. “Key lessons I shared were being fully present with the other person. That means avoiding all noise and background distractions that are within your control. Agree on an end time in advance, and stick to it. If the conversation seems to be going so well that you’d like to continue it, check in and ask to extend it for another 15 minutes, or schedule a follow-up meeting.”
Dress well, too. “I realize that most of us aren’t dressed for success from the mid-torso down these days,” Ancowitz says. “But be sure to put on a top in a flattering color and groom yourself well. Check out your background and lighting beforehand, not to mention your sound. Everyone knows you’re supposed to log in 15 minutes early. Taking shortcuts on that often results in sideswiping your personal brand. Be sure you’re camera-ready from the get-go. Most people skip this step — don’t let that be you! Once you’re in conversation, listen at least as much as you speak, and aim to add as much value to the other person as you’re hoping to receive.”
In order to do that, Ancowitz suggests bringing her four “Is” to the conversation:
- Information: Exchange intel about the field, like trends and comings and goings of top executives.
- Insights: Listen thoughtfully and offer insights.
- Introductions: If they’re looking to expand their network, offer to connect them with people you know.
- Invitations: “Hey, I’m joining a webinar next Wednesday with an amazing speaker on data analytics in our field. Here’s the link, in case you want to join, too, and compare notes afterward.”
Finally, try your best to look engaged. “When connecting with someone via video, it helps to look directly into the camera while talking, so they feel like you’re looking at them directly,” says efficiency and executive coach Nicola Brown. “But the irony of that is, you’re then not able to see their image at the same time, so you can’t see their body language or facial expression to gauge where they’re at. You have to find the right balance of both. Also, screens freezing or calls dropping out are pretty much guaranteed, so it pays to have a backup ready, in terms of another way to connect.”
All Things Considered, Just Do Your Best
Swan emphasizes once again that everyone is reeling from the coronavirus right now, and that the people you want to connect with are just as new to this Zoom world as you are. So, just be genuine, honest and do your best. Because as Brown aptly says, “Basically, I think it’s all quite hard.”