Here at IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants), I work in communications, but we all need to stay connected to our respective professions, keep current with best practices, and lead the way by setting a good example of professionalism for others to follow. Students and early-career professionals can benefit from professional-development advice, and one of the most important tools for everyone, regardless of industry, is effective networking.
This past spring, I appeared as a guest speaker at a networking event hosted by the Rowan University chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). Unlike past events, where I enjoyed meeting many faculty members, students, and PRSSA colleagues (not to mention partaking in the buffet), this event was done virtually. The shift from in-person to virtual made things convenient in some ways but challenging in other ways.
Random breakout rooms in Zoom for networking felt mysterious or awkward, as did some of the at-home spots where people were broadcasting from. Some best practices for networking, though, remain tried and true regardless of whether you’re participating in virtual or in-person events. Based on my professional experiences, I came up with the following list of networking tips.
REMEMBER: IT’S BUSINESS, NOT PLEASURE
Even though most of us have been working from home for more than a year and a half, and we may have grown accustomed to our beloved pets joining virtual meetings, your space at a professional networking event should be just that: professional. Pick a blank wall or neutral setting without too much clutter in the background, or use a filter or virtual background on the video conferencing app.
In advance of the event, test your camera, lighting, and microphone settings to make sure that you’ll appear at your best. Make sure your surroundings are quiet and remove any tempting distractions like a bag of chips, fidget spinner, or cell phone. While it might seem odd to break out your business power suit for a virtual meeting, you still need to look professional. Dress neatly and formally even if no one can see that you aren’t wearing shoes.
CHECK THE ROSTER OF ATTENDEES
If possible, do a little homework to see who will be at the event and who you may potentially meet. This is also essential when going on a job interview. The more you know about the people you’ll be meeting, the better prepared you can be. Find out which attendees work at companies or in industries that you’re interested in.
Also, check to see if any alumni who graduated from your alma mater will be there. Finding something in common up front will make for a great icebreaker that’s likely to lead to interesting conversations.
PREPARE AN ELEVATOR SPEECH AND BACK-POCKET QUESTIONS
Whether you’ll be meeting in person or online, you need to prepare a quick, 30-second synopsis of your résumé that defines who you are professionally. For students, tell the professionals your name, major, area of interest, and why you came to the event. This important introduction will help the conversation get off to a good start.
Come to the event with at least two questions you want to ask. For example, ask me what I do at IMA, what my favorite part of the job is, or why I came to the PRSSA event. Ask about these types of details before plunging into whether there are any job openings at the organization. If the conversation warrants it, then ask me if I might recommend other colleagues for you to connect with or whether my organization has a referral policy for job candidates.
Online networking in breakout rooms can end suddenly. In a flash, the conversation is done and can easily be forgotten. Once you get the 30-second warning, think about how you want to conclude the conversation (for now). It’s hard when there are no handshakes or business cards to exchange, but regardless, express your thanks to the people you’ve met for their time, and keep the door open for future connection. If you don’t already have their contact information, then you can ask them if they’d like to exchange email addresses with you.
FOLLOW UP VIA EMAIL AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Shortly after the event, ideally by the next day, you should send a thank-you note to each of the professionals you met with. Make each one unique and recall something from your conversation at the event. Even if you didn’t feel that interested in the other person’s career and professional background, always thank them for their time and be open to expanding your network. If you feel there could be an ongoing connection, a chance to help one another with a future job search, or the potential to collaborate professionally, then it’s fine to send the person a LinkedIn request with a polite personalized message.
Whether your profession is communications, accounting and finance, or something else entirely, all students and professionals should have a LinkedIn profile. This is your “storefront” for recruiters, hiring managers, and future bosses. Include a professional photo, a clear headline, and concise descriptions of your studies, work experiences, job responsibilities, and extracurricular activities. Your LinkedIn profile should highlight who you are as a professional and what you aspire to achieve in the future. It’s a useful platform to keep in touch with current and former colleagues, peers at other organizations in your field with whom you’ve crossed paths, and people you’ve met at networking events.
Your other social media pages on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter cover other parts of your life, but they should still be clean and socially acceptable. You don’t know who’s watching you online, so I recommend setting these pages to a private setting so that only those friends and family members whom you choose to keep in your network can view the content that you share.
Networking is a lot of work, but it can allow you to speak to people you wouldn’t have otherwise met, bring you to places you might not have otherwise found, and open up professional opportunities you might not have otherwise been exposed to. Before long, we’ll be doing more of this in person, and I believe we’ll still be meeting virtually too. Enjoy the variety and take advantage of any networking opportunities that you can fit into your schedule!