The Definitive Guide to Business

15 secrets to becoming a master networker—even if the word 'networking' makes you panic

Opportunity isn't known to arrive at the door with a takeout pizza delivery.

To get a new job, a round of funding from a strategic investor or advice from a mentor, you have to get out there and meet new people, also known as "networking." The very word gives some people anxiety.

"I hate walking into rooms filled with strangers and making idle small talk in the hopes of finding some connection," says Kelly Hoey, an investor, networking expert and author of the forthcoming book, "Build Your Dream Network."

And while there isn't a switch you can flip to instantly change your personality, there are things you can do to improve your ability to connect with new people. Here are 15 secrets to becoming a master networker — even if "networking" makes you panic.

1. Don’t think of it as networking

"Networking brings up images of stodgy old white guys passing out business cards at cocktail hours," says Jon Levy, a human behavioral scientist who studies influence and the science of adventure, and the author of forthcoming book "The 2 AM Principle." Traditional networking "is about me, me, me getting to know as many people as possible for my personal benefit."

Rather than think about networking, Levy — who is the founder of a dinner party event series called The Influencers — suggests thinking about building community.

Jon Levy taking a photo at one of his dinner parties for The Influencers series
Rick Smolan | Against AllOdds
Jon Levy taking a photo at one of his dinner parties for The Influencers series

And instead of just getting a business card or another LinkedIn connection, think about bringing your new acquaintances into your life more holistically.

"If I meet somebody extraordinary, I don't want them to know just me; I want them to be friends with my friends and my friends' friends so that they get integrated into my community and they have a larger impact on me," Levy says. "Fundamentally, we call a network a community when it has enough connections between its people."

2. Put your name tag on your right shoulder

Networking requires focus. Best to avoid unnecessary distractions or stresses, like making it hard to see name tags. "Networking can be uncomfortable when you forget the name of the person you were just introduced to. It is made doubly awkward when you have to glance at a name badge clipped to a waistband or buttonhole," says Hoey.

3. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t

Levy points to Susan Cain's book, "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," which suggests one-third of the population may be introverted. Levy recommends introverts pay attention to their natural inclinations. "This is completely natural, and don't beat yourself up if this is your personality and temperament. Be respectful of your limitations and don't expect that you will be like some wild extrovert." Look to connect at dinner parties, not galas, says Levy. Go for coffee one-on-one, rather than working the crowd at a conference.

4. Don't go it alone

If the alone time that it is largely inevitable in the course of mingling makes you squeamish, then try grabbing a buddy, says Dorie Clark, a marketing strategy consultant, former presidential campaign spokeswoman, adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the author of "Reinventing You," a book about how to develop your personal brand.

Dorie Clark
Source: Marilyn Humphries
Dorie Clark

"It can be hard to approach strangers if you're by yourself; it may feel uncomfortable and intrusive. Instead, invite a 'wingman' along with you," says Clark, in an email with CNBC. "That ensures you won't be standing by yourself at the event, and you have someone who can help 'talk you up' to new acquaintances, and you can do the same for them."

5. Know who’s going to be there and what you want out of the experience

Whenever possible, read up on the speakers and guest list of any event you are considering attending. "I don't walk into a networking room ill-prepared," says Hoey, in an email with CNBC. "My advice is to always research the event or group or speaker in advance. On that, I leverage online tools (social media, blogs, podcasts) before I even RSVP to see who else is attending."

By doing your homework, you are better able to set an attainable goal for yourself. "I always like to know why I am in the 'networking' room before I enter the room. It may be to gain information or hear a particular speaker or to seek out a specific contact. Knowing why you have made the choice to be in the room is the first step in easing the pain of networking," says Hoey.

6. Practice saying who you are and what you do in different ways

Jon Levy toasting his guests at one of his dinner parties for The Influencers series.
Rick Smolan | Against AllOdds
Jon Levy toasting his guests at one of his dinner parties for The Influencers series.

"This is an experiment and should always be growing as you should be growing as a person. By iterating your introduction, you will learn what gets the best response in different communities," says Levy. In particular, if you have a highly technical job that is likely to confuse people, find creative ways to communicate why what you do is important.

7. Be positive

Nearly everyone has some amount of anxiety about approaching strangers. The first step to actually approaching those strangers is to let go of inhibitions. "Kick fear to the curb! All of us are afraid and have problems — we all need help to hit our goals. Most people will help if you ask," says Judy Robinett, the author of "How to Be a Power Connector." "A heartfelt smile and hello is a gift. Shy folks make better networkers because they know how to listen. As long as you are alive, you will experience fear. Feelings and thoughts are not facts."

"A heartfelt smile and hello is a gift. Shy folks make better networkers because they know how to listen." -Judy Robinett, Author of, "How to Be a Power Connector"

One way to get rid of your fear is to work to change your attitude. "If you decide you are a great networker, you suddenly are! Be upbeat, positive, optimistic, friendly, happy, helpful, engaging," says Alana Muller, a networking speaker, workshop facilitator, coach and author of the book, "Coffee Lunch Coffee: A Practical Field Guide for Master Networking." "You will become a magnet for others who want to connect with you."

Kelly Hoey
Source: Lisa Tanner Photography
Kelly Hoey

To facilitate a cheerful demeanor, pretend that you are the host or hostess of the event, recommends Hoey. "I know I'm not the only person who dreads networking, so by focusing on whether others are having a good time, I focus less on my own discomfort."

8. Ask questions

Nobody wants to network with a narcissist. Ask the people you are interacting with questions, and then listen to their responses attentively. "When was the last time you asked someone a direct question and they flat out refused to respond? Probably never! And, if you ask open-ended questions, you are much more likely to generate conversation with your contact which will result in not only a great discussion, but also a great long-term relationship," says Muller.

9. Give a little

"Don't forget that networking is not about 'What have you done for me lately?' but rather about, 'What can I do to help you?'" says Muller. "By being generous with your time, information and resources, you become a trusted and valued contact to whom others are willing to offer a great deal in return."

10. Solicit advice, and make introductions

"Share your story or goal with others then ask: what other ideas do you have for me? And who else do you know I should talk with? These are magic. Learn to ask," says Robinett, in an email with CNBC.

"Don't forget that networking is not about 'What have you done for me lately?' but rather about, 'What can I do to help you?'" -Alana Muller, author of the book, "Coffee Lunch Coffee: A Practical Field Guide for Master Networking"

Going into a room blind can feel overwhelming, but once you have made one strong connection, ask that person if they can make any further introductions. "Avoid the Chamber of Commerce mixer scene. Those events are hit-or-miss in terms of finding good contacts, anyway. Instead, be more targeted and ask the business contacts you like and respect the most who they think you should meet, and ask them to make personal introductions," says Clark.

11. Be willing to embarrass yourself

Sometimes it's not going to go as planned. And that's OK. "You can't go out there and connect with people without screwing up along the way. I have had more cringe-worthy, utterly embarrassing, incredibly uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny-but-only-in-retrospect moments than most people have with strangers than the number of people you have met in your life. And that's just because I talk to more people. I am often coming home either laughing at myself or kicking myself for saying that one stupid thing that I tested out. But it's all part of the price of doing business," says Levy. "The bigger risk is not getting yourself out there and talking to people."

12. Stay as long as you want

"If you attend a networking event (e.g. a reception, a speaker, a program, etc.) and have a meaningful interaction with one, two or three people people who you want to continue to build a relationship, you have permission to leave!" says Muller. Furthermore, if you get to an event and it's a disappointment, cut your losses.

Judy Robinett
Source: Judy Robinett

"I give myself permission to leave a networking event before the stated end time if the event is not meeting expectations or I've made my desired introductions," says Hoey. "There is no point in extending the agony if networking goals have been achieved (or on the flip-side, if my expectations from the event have not been met)."

13. Follow up

If you meet anyone really valuable, be sure you have a way to be in touch and then follow up. "The most difficult part of networking is simply reaching out. Others want and need these connections, too. As such, you should commit to being the person who reaches out first," says Muller.

When you reach out, present a plan. "By doing the heavy lifting of suggesting you get together, along with a date, time and location to meet, your contacts are much more open to the idea of getting together and will be grateful for your outreach," Muller says.

14. Stay in touch with existing contacts

"For many people, 'networking' equates to 'meeting new people,' which can become exhausting. Instead, don't forget that an equally important and often overlooked component is keeping in touch with existing contacts," says Clark. "Those longstanding connections, if nurtured over time, can pay big dividends when former colleagues take on new positions where they might be able to hire you or help you."

15. Volunteer

"Old school networking is dead — you know those folks who don't even say hello, that shove their business card at you? Most networking groups are not worth your time," says Robinett.

Instead, consider volunteering for a group or organization that attracts high-powered influencers, she suggests. "Volunteer for a group with movers and shakers. Get out of your comfort zone. Baby steps will do. I met three billionaires in Park City by volunteering for a political group," Robinett says.