Networking is defined as ‘interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.’ Sounds simple right? Yet so many people are fearful of networking, thinking it involves phoning a list of people to ask for a job or awkward situations such as standing alone in a room full of strangers. So let’s get rid of those false, negative images right now and focus on what successful networking really is – an opportunity to learn about the world of work and the current labour market, and also a chance to develop new professional relationships.

With research showing that word of mouth is the top way employers find job candidates (Small Business Survey 2016), it’s essential you get out there, let people know about you and start growing your network! Here’s my top 5 tips to get you on your way:

1) Have a Strategy

Firstly, decide what you want to achieve through networking. For example, you might want to find out more about a particular industry or identify companies that hire people with your background and skills. Use this to decide which events you choose to attend and online/offline groups you join. You can then set yourself goals for each activity to ensure you meet your networking aims, such as ‘I will talk to three people within the marketing industry about their roles and qualifications needed.’ Or ‘I will speak to people from 3 different companies to learn more about the range of work undertaken within the businesses.’

2) Start with people you know

The best way to gain confidence is to start off with people that you know. Think of friends, family, friends of parents, previous teachers and employers and ask them if they can introduce you to people in their network who may be useful contacts for you. Whether you have a chat on the phone or meet for coffee, you’ve already got something in common to start off the conversation. I find it useful to ask clients to draw themselves a ‘personal networking web’, noting down all the people they know in a spidergram format. You’ll be amazed at how big your network already is!

3) Don’t ask for a job!

You should never use a networking opportunity to ask for a job. This tactic is a great conversation-stopper – the opposite of what you want to achieve! Instead, you want to approach networking with the belief that everyone has something to both learn and gain from it. I like the term used by US Careers Writer, who views networking as a ‘chain of helpfulness’. Think of each contact and conversation as a chance for you to learn key job-related information, but also for you to give back to the network. For example, do you have relevant job or industry knowledge you could pass on to others? Early on your networking may have more of a focus on learning rather than giving, but as your career progresses this will change and you can start giving back to you contacts.

4) Have a Positive Mindset

It’s essential to be in the right frame of mind for networking. If you feel particularly downbeat about your current career position, perhaps negative about not being able to find work or still angry with your last boss, this can come across during your interactions and may leave people with a negative impression. Look for ways to deal with these emotions first so that you can make the most of networking opportunities and create a positive impression on the people you meet.

5) Follow Up

Following up is a really important and effective part of networking, however it’s something that is often overlooked. When you make a new contact at an event, be sure to ask for their business card, email address or LinkedIn details. After the event (ideally within 24 hours), send a short follow-up message. Mention where you met and thank them for taking the time to talk with you. You might also reiterate any actions you discussed during your meeting or ask to meet up if you feel that would be useful for you both.

Take time to develop and nurture your network now, you never know when a contact might come in useful over the course of your career!