On Tuesday I had the distinct pleasure of moderating the well-attended Women in Technology panel at Microsoft TechEd 2011. The topic was networking (well, the topic was a long run-on sentence that boiled down to “networking”), and our panelists – Mary Jo Foley, Amy Barzdukas, and Betsy Speare – shared their own personal tips for networking before we all took a number of questions from the audience.
Many of the tips centered around mentoring and sponsorship relationships, as well as the use of social media as an important part of one’s personal outreach and branding. When authoring the slides, I made sure to prominently feature our Twitter handles to ensure that we could continue the conversation online. I have to say, I was absolutely delighted to observe afterwards an avalanche of new followers who had just created Twitter accounts as a result of our conversation on the panel. If you’re one of those ladies, and have questions or observations about your initial experiences, I’d love to hear about them!
Here’s My Card
If I had to share a networking tip of my own, it would be this: You need business cards. I know, there’s nothing digital about them, right? But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met someone and the only piece of paper handy is one of my cards. You’re not going to get a 100% response rate from the cards you hand out, but you will see results of some kind. It’s far better to be prepared. And when was the last time you ACTUALLY successfully “bumped” someone with your smartphone?
Your cards don’t have to be fancy, either. Sure, fancy cards are great conversation starters. At Amaze Entertainment, we had clear plastic biz cards with the background printed in opaque black ink. Very fancy. Also? Not dryer safe. And we actually got complaints from people who over the years got used to writing on the back of business cards; often notes about where a person was first encountered or a topic to follow up with. Now at Microsoft, my cards are about as uninteresting as it gets. White background, grey corporate logo. But the important part is that it helps us continue the conversation. (As a designer, I wouldn’t mind something a little more colorful… but I hear my team is working on that.) And in this world of on-demand printing, even if your company doesn’t offer business cards, you can print your own for just $10-$20.
During my latest reprint, I also took advantage of the new ability to print text on the back of the card to include my social media information. ( Find Cheryl online: / Twitter: @muppetaphrodite / http://cherylplatz.com ) Sometimes, email or phone calls are too involved for followup on a casual encounter – that’s why Twitter is so great. It’s a much more passive way to get to know someone and watch for potential collaboration opportunities. It reminds me in a way of Amy’s comment on the panel about “dating” your friends and network members.
Oh, and if you don’t know how to carry your cards around, there are a number of fun business card holders out there. I got mine, a shiny silver engraved one, from Fred Meyer for $10 or so. And it doubles as a great wallet option when I don’t want to carry a purse.
Another quick related note: I mentioned this in an earlier post, “The Past Our Parents Don’t Have“, but I just want to make it clear that LinkedIn is not simply a tool for jobseekers. It’s become an important way to keep in touch with professional contacts even when they change companies. There are plenty of folks with whom I’m not close enough to warrant a Facebook connection who are important parts of my professional life. In the past, if those people switched companies, I’d have lost touch as soon as their email accounts were deactivated. That’s no longer an issue. Plus LinkedIn offers a number of groups and discussion forums that are great for finding other people with similar interests or answers to questions. If you haven’t created an account there yet, I’d recommend it. It’s never too late to start formally building your professional network.
I hope that the women at our panel came out energized and enthusiastic about networking – but as Amy pointed out, all of those tips are universal, regardless of gender. When I was still in school, “networking” sounded sometimes like a dirty word, conjuring up images of sleazy businessmen and smoke-filled rooms. The reality is so much different, especially today! Networking is all about leveraging the tools available to us to establish multiple levels of persistent human connections with our professional peers. Best wishes to all of you who are putting yourselves “out there” for the first time!