The art of effective (virtual) networking

This is the third in a series of three articles sharing lessons and best practices from the Lenfest Next Generation Fund for how journalists can maximize professional development opportunities, build their professional brands, and effectively network.

Networking can be awkward. For many of us, it’s hard to work up the courage to walk up to strangers or people you admire and start conversations. And now with practically all networking events for the foreseeable future moved online, it can be even more of a challenge — unless you’re prepared. 

Speaking recently to the Lenfest Next Generation Fund award winners, Crawford Leadership Strategies CEO Joyel Crawford shared strategies for how to successfully network at virtual events. The Lenest Next Generation Fund is a program created by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to enable Philadelphia-area journalists of color to attend professional development conferences.

Networking shouldn’t purely be transactional or about finding your next job. You should aim to create lasting relationships. 

While the virtual nature of events may change some tactics, the overall emphasis should be the same. Here are a few strategies Crawford shared at each stage of the process — making introductions, holding the conversations, and then following up afterward: 

Make an intro 

Introductions don’t have to be horribly painful,” Crawford said. 

She continued: “The key to efficient networking is to continue to do the things you would normally do in a real-life space.” She suggested that conference attendees reach out and schedule meetings like virtual coffee dates just as they would in-person. 

Below are some strategies on how to master this first networking step from the comfort of your home: 

  • Be active on social media. Respond to comments and participate in conversations. Visit Linkedin and Twitter at least once a day, specifically looking for people talking about the conference to find out who is in attendance that you may want to network with.
  • Research people who hold jobs you aspire to and follow experts that resonate with you. Check and see if they mention that they are attending or speaking at a conference you are attending. If they make a post about attending the conference you may want to comment and let them know you’ll be attending, how you admire their work and ask for a virtual coffee or if they’re leading a session you may plan to talk to them in the chat or have a question prepared for that session. 
  • When reaching out to schedule coffee meetings, Crawford suggested that you make your intentions clear and explain why you’re seeking them out while being respectful of their time.

Hold an engaging discussion

You’re not attending the conference to just have a good time. You should have set specific goals and intentions for the conference prior to the start, and you should use every networking opportunity you can to help you reach them.

Here are some strategies Crawford shared for how to ace virtual conversations: 

  • As journalists know, questions are great conversation starters. Here are some fresh questions to add to your conference networking this year: 
    • Did you choose to attend or were you voluntold to be here? 
    • What inspired you to get into journalism? 
    • What tips do you have for an introvert trying to network?
  • An alternate introduction can also be a good way to get the conversation going. It can be intriguing when people have enthusiastic introductions. For example, you could say, “I am a future […] my goal is to be […] in the next five years.” Sharing your goals and ambitions exudes confidence and can provide contacts with the context to know how they can help you.
  • Actively participate in the chats and online forums provided by the conference. These back channels can be terrific ways to meet people and bond over the conference programming. Crawford suggested using the following template:
  • My name is […] I work for […] and I am really excited to be here […] Looking forward to meeting you.”
  • “Virtual conferences are great times to share your thought leadership in ways that are more difficult in person,” Crawford said.  Be sure to share articles, blogs, or other pieces you’ve created that can showcase your work. You can drop the links in relevant chats if you’re observing a session or participating in a one-on-one conversation. 
  • Stick to one person at a time while networking. “While it can be really overwhelming to be in a breakout room with like tens of thousands of people,” focusing on conversations with one person at a time will make your interaction more meaningful, Crawford suggested.
  • Get your act together. Make sure you look presentable and dress in a style that is consistent with how you would dress to attend the conference in real life.

Continue the conversation

Your communication shouldn’t end when the conference ends. You should think about how you can continue to grow your relationships even when you return to day-to-day work. 

Here are Crawford’s tips:

  • Remember to get contact information and to follow up with anyone you network with. An essential piece when it comes to building relationships with other attendees or panelists. In your note to thank them, reference specifics of the conversation and mention ways you hope to continue the discussion. 
  • Always approach every interaction with the intention of collaboration and support.

As Crawford put it, “The key to networking is that it is not about you. It is about your intentions and goals. It is about making sure you’re reaching those things, that you are rising to the occasion of this conference.”

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