Networking ‘dos and don’ts’ for university students

Adapted from a workshop given by Public Relations expert Alexandre Sévigny (Director of the McMaster-Syracuse Communications Management Program, McMaster University, and Adjunct Faculty, McMaster Health Forum)

By: Piyumi Galappatti, Research Assistant at the McMaster Health Forum

Networking is one of those skills that is absolutely essential to advancing one’s career, and for many students the ability to network plays a huge role in ‘getting our foot in the door’ and landing our first ‘real’ job. Unfortunately, a lot of the time networking involves the difficult task of walking into a room full of strangers and carrying on a conversation with a group of successful individuals who may make you feel inferior. So how exactly does one successfully network at these events and leave behind a good impression? This was the focus of a workshop led by Alexandre Sévigny, who has extensive experience in public relations and advertising, and is the current director of the McMaster-Syracuse Communications Management Program. Sévigny’s workshop was held as part of the recent McMaster-Brock Forum on Global Health, which brought together many leading researchers and practitioners of global health, as well as students interested in the field. While his workshop was tailored towards individuals with previous job experience, much of his advice is applicable to students and those just starting out in their careers.

Before I get into the details, I just want to say that I, like many other students, am terrible at networking. When I walk into a room full of people that I don’t know, my gut instinct is to find someone – ANYONE – I recognize, and make a beeline towards him or her. More often than not, I end up trapped in a boring conversation and forced to spend my entire evening listening to stories about someone’s dog. Sound familiar? According to Sévigny, we all have a natural tendency to seek out familiar faces when we are in an unfamiliar environment, but we must resist the urge to run to our friends because it defeats the purpose of networking events, which are designed to provide exposure to a large number of people. In order to have a successful networking experience, Sévigny recommended the following steps:

1)    Set a target number of people to meet and keep that number in mind as you mingle – politicians do this all the time during their campaigns.

2)    Do your research before going into an event. Know who’s coming (or who will likely be there) and narrow down a list of individuals that you’re interested in approaching. Make sure to read up a little bit about them, so that you won’t struggle to find things to talk about when you meet them.

3)    Dress nicely and appropriately. Most people are visual, they are likely to remember what you were wearing, but you definitely don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons.

4)    Be polite. While this won’t make you memorable, being impolite will definitely give off the wrong impression.

5)    Don’t just give a firm handshake. Make sure you also look people in the eye when you shake their hand and show that your attention is completely focused on that individual.

6)    Don’t feel intimidated by others. This is especially difficult for students, as we often feel like we lack life/job experience. Keep in mind that the majority of individuals you will meet were once in your position and so will be realistic in their expectations of you. At the same time, don’t be afraid to talk about your accomplishments (if asked to) and be prepared to pitch yourself to others.

7)    Don’t get into ‘in-depth’ discussions with a few people in a group. Those left out of the conversation are likely to resent you.

8)    Don’t be afraid to leave a conversation by politely excusing yourself. In other words, don’t get cornered by the person going on and on about their dog.

9)    Don’t get into petty arguments. Accept the fact that people get nervous during these events and say things that may be politically incorrect or controversial.

10)  Don’t give out too many personal details. Remember, you’ve just met these people and exposing your personal struggles could just make for an awkward situation for everyone. Although these people may appear to be empathetic towards your personal struggles, they are unlikely to care. After all, they don’t know you.

11)  The most important thing you can do to give off a good impression is to give others your full and undivided attention. If you do end up speaking to people individually, try to direct the conversation towards the other person by asking him or her questions, and by showing genuine interest in what he or she has to say. Everyone appreciates a good listener and giving people your undivided attention will make you memorable in their books.

I can’t stress enough just how important that last point is to leaving a good impression. Some of the most popular and well-respected public figures have mastered the technique of listening and giving others their undivided attention. Bill Clinton in particular is known for his exceptional interpersonal skills. Anyone who has had the chance to meet the former U.S. President in person will tell you that he is a great listener. Much of his success as a politician and enduring popularity has been due to his ability to relate to the average person. If you give others your attention, they are likely to reciprocate and to remember you for it.

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