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If you're a recent grad in the field of digital technology, you're probably already a pro at online networking.
As someone who spends more time behind the keyboard than handling in-person introductions, networking events can be necessary but problematic. With so much of your credibility living online, how do you present yourself offline at tech networking events?
1. Prepare Yourself
Research the event and its structure. Is it general mingling or structured speed networking?
- Look up the hosts, featured guests, participants and their businesses. Go ahead and check out their LinkedIn profiles, and don't be afraid of the network's default feature that lets them know you've been looking at their profiles. This shows you're prepared and interested in engaging. You can also use SEMrush to research a business' area of focus and marketing strategy prior to meeting individuals from that organization.
- Assume you will meet a variety of people, including recent grads, Google employees and people who don't know the difference between 'CEO' and 'SEO.' Prepare to react accordingly.
- Define your goals and determine what makes you different from every other recent grad out there. Prepare to sell those qualities.
- Before you head to each networking event, think about what you want to get out of the event and what you have to offer to those that attend. Keep your goal in mind.
- Be confident, clear some time after the event to follow up with connections and follow other general advice for networking success.
Additionally, if you still feel nervous, it's not a bad idea to bring a friend. Just make sure you appear professional and facilitate introductions to each other. Sticking together the entire time could make you both less approachable.
2. Converse with Clarity
Networking with prospective contacts or employers is sometimes intimidating, especially when you're used to doing the majority of your work behind a computer screen. Develop some conversation topics for those not in your particular field.
For example, if you specialize in content writing or SEO, you know that any business can benefit from best SEO practices and should be ready to explain why. If you encounter another recent grad or someone switching industries, perhaps they could benefit from your resume-writing skills. Ask yourself how you can help them at least as often as you wonder how they can help you and you will find some meaningful connections.
When you speak with those within the industry:
- Be clear about your areas of interest and expertise.
- Convey honesty when you feel that you have more to learn in a field.
- Ask questions when you're generally interested in an opportunity.
- Show that you are willing to learn, especially if you're interested in being mentored.
Take advantage of the other resources available. A gracious event host will offer advice and make suggestions for additional connections.
You'll encounter many who define who they are by what they do, especially at networking events where business is the expected topic of conversation. As a recent grad, that may not be the best strategy — plus, you'll sound like everyone else. Although you may want to avoid the still-unemployed-or-stuck-in-a-retail-job conversation, you can find other topics of conversation.
"I used to tell people that I took embroidery commissions instead of that I was between jobs," says Callie Cunningham, a 2012 Bryn Mawr College alumna and social media marketing pro. Like many recent grads, Cunningham took retail and freelance work before fully breaking into the industry.
While this is the norm, it can certainly make a recent grad feel a bit awkward at networking events.
Remember that you are more than your brand and your degree. You may form a better business relationship with someone over your love of microbrews, baseball, comic books or fashion. This will also make you more memorable.
3. Practice Saying No
"Are you interested in an opportunity to earn unlimited potential selling insurance and widgets in an industry you know nothing about?"
"I know you're already volunteering to manage social media for three nonprofits, but we could really use your help. The opportunity doesn't pay."
"Let me give you some basic advice about business that you've heard thirty times already. By the way, you could be networking with industry contacts right now, but I'm going to take up your time telling you things you already know."
As a recent grad, you'll meet a lot of people looking to take advantage of your expertise without offering much in return.
In these situations, you have to say no. Do it tactfully. Do it often. Practice.
After a while, you just won't have the time or resources to help everyone without having a total breakdown, and the more you spread your efforts thin, the more you risk letting yourself and others down. Plus, saying yes to everything is an easy way to lose focus early in your career.
Save that 'yes' for the right risk or an opportunity that aligns with your interests, even if that means living at your parents' house and working at Starbucks for another six months.
4. Manage All The Stuff You Carry
Having your resources available at all times feels important to anyone in tech, from the ability to find a quick answer on Google to making instant connections in the business world. To accomplish this, we're saddled with the portable tools of the trade in addition to the essential items all networkers need to bring to events. How do you handle all these physical items without appearing awkward?
When you're in tech, you're expected to have a lot of gadgets. It's not unusual for those of us in the industry to be constantly attentive to our phones, tablets and laptops. Even though this is more acceptable in the tech industry, you could be missing out if you spend a fair amount of time on your phone at the event. Instead, appear open, engaging and approachable.
That doesn't mean you have to put your phone away. Carrying the tools of the trade can support your competency, and you can even scan a QR code or find a contact on LinkedIn to connect instantly. Just make sure your phone is accessible and leaves a hand free to shake a hand if necessary.
Resumes and Portfolios
Recent grads often ask whether they should bring hard copy resumes to networking events. If the event is centered around hiring or targeted to recent grads, it's always a wise idea to bring resumes along. Carry them in a portfolio for ease of access. Business cards should also live in your portfolio. Make sure you keep a space open to keep others' cards.
Keys and Wallets
Take the minimum amount of non-business related stuff into a networking event. This includes keys and wallets. Take just the essentials to avoid bulky pockets or dropping your keys. If you carry a purse or briefcase, make sure it's well-organized so your items don't awkwardly fall out or get lost each time you open it.
"I use a bag I can sling securely over my shoulder and arm (not cross-body), but that won't fall off my shoulder or slide every time I move," says web content writer and social media marketer Deborah Dera. "Or I just leave it all in my car (trunk) and carry a padfolio that has spots for business cards and notes, and maybe take my car key off the ring and tuck it in there, too."
Charging into the field of digital technology is very much about relationship building, including connections you make and remember offline. Attend networking events often, follow up and remain persistent in all your efforts.
Do you have additional advice for recent grads looking to enter the tech field? Please add your advice in the comments.
Header image credit: Canva & Picjumbo. Apple, the Apple logo and iPhone are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.
Tara M. Clapper is Technical Editor at SEMrush and Senior Editor at The Geek Initiative, a website celebrating women in geek culture.