Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
This summer, I went to my first in-person work conference since before the pandemic. As an extrovert, I was excited by the prospect of meeting new people in my field of journalism, rubbing elbows with the best and brightest and trading tips with other reporters.
But I lost my confidence as soon as I walked into a room full of ... bagels.
That's what networking expert Robbie Samuels calls the tight clusters of people who gather in seemingly impenetrable circles at networking events, who seem to already know each other and don't want to let newcomers in.
To me, that's what makes networking so intimidating. But Samuels, author of the book Croissants Versus Bagels: Strategic, Effective and Inclusive Networking at Conferences, says it doesn't have to be this way. If we all adapted a more croissant-like attitude – that is, a spirit of openness, like the pastry's shape – he says people would understand that networking is about being generous with our professional knowledge and helping each other succeed in our careers.
So while I may have fallen into a crowd of bagels at my career event, that shouldn't stop me from projecting a sense of openness to other professionals. "Ask yourself what you can do to be the croissant, to welcome people into your space," he says.
In addition to his breakfast food-related guidance, Samuels talks to Life Kit about how to make networking less awkward, how to support those in your network and how to make connections anywhere — even in line at the DMV.
Robbie Samuels is a networking expert and the author of Small List, Big Results and Croissants Versus Bagels: Strategic, Effective, and Inclusive Networking at Conferences.
Find creative ways to stay in touch
It's a common networking dilemma. You want people in your network to remember you and show up for you when you need them. But you don't want to bombard them with career-driven questions, or worse, only reach out to them when you need a favor.
So what do you do?
First, find ways to give back and support those in your network. That includes sharing a colleague's new project on your social media, attending a mentor's webinar or volunteering your time to a former colleague's charity campaign.
"If I'm seen as a giver then others will hopefully want to give to me as well," he says.
And try to mix up your interactions so that they're not just job-related. Samuels, for example, likes to collect mailing addresses and send his closer connections birthday cards. "These little touches don't take a ton of effort," he explains — but they can help you stand out.
Show your network that you're valuable
Whenever Samuels enters a networking event, he thinks about how he might contribute to the topic at hand or be helpful to others. The idea, he says, is that if your network sees you as valuable, they might be more likely to turn to you for opportunities or introduce you to others in their network.
For this reason, Samuels says he operates "with a philosophy of abundance and gives away knowledge when I can."
This advice applies no matter what stage you are in your career, he adds. If you're just starting out, for example, you might share a great productivity app with your team or offer to take meeting notes.
And don't discount your personal interests. If you notice someone has the same houseplant as you on your Zoom call, or mentions a movie you loved – go ahead and point it out. That's a form of networking, too. Samuels says commonalities can offer an opening for a stronger bond with a tenuous professional connection.
Create a plan of action before a networking event
We go to conferences, conventions and job fairs in the hopes that we'll come away with real and meaningful connections. But how do we know if these events are worth our time and attention?
"Having a strategy before you get to an event is what will make it more successful," says Samuels. Remember, networking isn't about talking to the most people or collecting the most business cards. "It's about focusing your energy on the right communities and conversations."
So think about your goals and create a relevant plan of action. For example, are you looking for a new job? Focus on talking to hiring managers. Are you in a career rut and looking for inspiration? Reach out to people you admire in your field and ask them to brainstorm new ideas with you.
Then, when you make a high priority connection, make sure to follow up right away. Meeting one time isn't going to lead to anything. "Repeat exposure is what will build a connection," says Samuels.
Remember that networking can happen anywhere
Don't forget to look outside your regular social and professional circles for like-minded people, says Samuels. "If you always keep your blinders on, you'll miss opportunities when they are right in front of you."
The key, he says, is to know what kind of professional connection you're looking for before entering a setting where you might encounter a lot of new people. That might be a happy hour, your cousin's bat mitzvah or even standing in line at the DMV.
"If you have a clear understanding of the kind of people and connections you're looking for, you'll start to find them in moments you wouldn't expect," he says. "You'll be surprised how often luck and serendipity finds you."
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.