When I was a young, green freelance writer, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And that’s a good thing. If I’d realized how ignorant I was about business, I would never have quit my well-paying job as a systems analyst to go off on my own in an entirely new direction. (I was smart enough to register in a magazine journalism program at Ryerson University.)
Fortunately, I snagged a few contracts in those early days, keeping me busy for three or four days per week. At one of these jobs, I worked with a wonderful manager who, although only a few years older than I, took me under her wing. She invited me to a meeting of the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. (They are still around.)
The next day, I thanked her for taking me to the meeting, but I was less than enthusiastic about the gathering itself. “Do you think you will go next month?” my manager asked. “No, I don’t think so. I really don’t like going out at night to have bologna and potato salad.”
I had missed the whole point of going to the meeting. Obviously. I laugh now when I think about it.
Luckily, during the last 30 years, I’ve improved my appreciation for networking, along with my skills at it. In fact, most of my work has come through networking. Let me share some examples with you.
Let’s go back 22 years when I was a young mom. At a picnic with my local mothers’ group, one woman asked if I was still writing. “Oh, yes, I said, I’m writing mostly for magazines these days, since the babies were born.” Another mom said she worked for a ministry of the Ontario government, and they needed a writer. A few weeks later she referred me to one of the managers in the ministry’s communications branch. We developed a great relationship and I completed several large projects for them. Bonus: they referred me to communications people in other ministries, who also hired me. (Today you need to apply to get on a vendor list – not so simple anymore.)
A gaggle of freelancers
For a while I wrote a column about business writing in a local newspaper in Oakville. Out of the blue, a reader contacted me to suggest I join the Halton-Peel Communications Association (now called Communicators Connection). I loved this group from the start, and met some terrific writers, graphic designers, translators and PR practitioners. Many have become good friends. One in particular called to invite me to interview for a six-month contract, which turned into nine years of regular work for a large multinational company, writing much of their employee communications. That gig helped me feed my family and pay my kids’ orthodontist.
Third Tuesday, Podcamp Toronto and more
Back in the days before we started calling social media “social media,” a growing group of people in Toronto began to blog about public relations, communications, marketing and new media. PR pros Joe Thornley and Martin Waxman launched a group called Third Tuesday Toronto, which soon branched into several other cities. Their events featured speakers, networking and great camaraderie. Through this group and Podcamp Toronto, I met so many of the people who are my social media colleagues today – too many to mention. Groups like this form the foundation for learning, getting known, getting remembered and getting business.
Years ago I joined the Toronto chapter of IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators, and my dues have been one of my most fruitful business investments. Our chapter is vibrant, and we even have our own group of freelancers, the Professional Independent Communicators or PIC.
Going to conferences can be a bit of a headache, with the expense, travel and being away from home and family for days at a time. But if you can find the right events, you’ll put yourself in position to meet people who can become clients, colleagues and friends. Speaking at conferences is the best way to attend, in my opinion. Sure, it’s stressful at times, and you need to prepare your material, but wearing the speaker badge opens doors.
Because I started podcasting in 2005, I’m referred to as an “early adopter” or even a “pioneer.” I didn’t know I was a pioneer at the time. As soon as I fell in love with audio, I knew I had to produce my own podcast and (eventually) create them for clients. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met because of my podcast. Bonus: You can contact just about anyone to invite them to be a guest on your show. Since 2005, no one has turned me down.
Be kind, and listen
My most recent networking story demonstrates the value of just plain being kind. In June I was eating lunch at the Porter Lounge at Billy Bishop Airport in downtown Toronto. The place was packed and I was lucky to find a table. I spotted a gentleman walking around with his sandwich and drink, seeking a place to park himself. I waved him over and we started to chat. Turns out he is dual American-Canadian like me and a senior manager at an American organization establishing an outpost in Toronto. Guess what? They need help. We’re starting with a small contract that may just turn into a great working relationship.
So what I have I learned about networking?
Give before you get.
Be generous. Don’t be that person who hands out business cards indiscriminately without engaging in conversation and finding out how you can be helpful.
Do carry business cards.
Some of my colleagues think business cards are passé. “Just connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn,” they say. Um, how am I going to remember your name when I get back to my desk? Give me that card. I may toss it in the recycling bin after connecting on LinkedIn and Twitter, but at least I was able to find you.
Be social; share content.
If you want to get known and get remembered, a good way to amplify your in-person efforts is by sharing useful, relevant content in a blog, and then using social media to spread the word. (If you want to lean more about this, think about attending my Hands-on Social Media Workshop.) Don’t be afraid of social media. Put yourself out there on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and whatever other platforms you like. But do have a plan; know why you’re online.
Show your face.
I love online networking, but there’s no substitute for face-to-face communications. Go to events, conferences, meetups and seminars where you’ll not only learn, but also meet interesting people whose paths may cross yours in interesting ways.
Don’t be shy.
If you are looking for work – whether full-time, contract or freelance – let people know. Be sure your friends, relatives, neighbours and colleagues know you’re available. Otherwise they won’t think of you when an opportunity arises.
What networking tips would you add?
Updated August 23, 2017