The secret of networking? Talking | Helen Lewis-Hasteley
Networking isn’t about warm wine and forced conversations. Hopefully, Julia Hobsbawm will get that message across
Everyone hates “networking”: forced conversations, insincere declarations of friendship, the awkward dance of trying to accept a business card while cradling a warm glass of white wine and a wilted canapé. It’s all a bit … Apprentice candidate.
But that’s not really what networking should be: it’s just talking to people with similar interests to you. If something comes out of it – great. But you’re not there to pump them for information, or contacts, or execute your 15-point plan towards world domination.
Perhaps the appointment of Julia Hobsbawm as a “visiting professor of networking” at the Cass Business School in London can do something to rescue the practice’s tattered reputation. If anyone can network, it’s Hobsbawm: she appears to know everyone in the capital’s cosy media-political complex (she follows 1,807 people on Twitter, for a start). And she’s refreshingly straightforward about what it involves. “You should find the person you are standing next to and really try to get the measure of them and let them get the measure of you,” she told the Evening Standard’s Rosamund Urwin. In other words, talk to people.
The big issue Hobsbawm needs to address is the idea that networking is unfair: that getting on is about who you know, not what you know. To the outsider, for example, the worlds of politics and journalism can seem positively incestuous. Can anyone not in the club ever join it? Doesn’t networking just encourage people to give jobs to people they meet in the pub?
At this point, I should declare an interest. For five years I ran regular networking events for young journalists called Schmooze and Booze (older colleagues once suggested setting up a parallel event called Whinge and Binge). It was free, open to anyone who was interested, and held in a central London pub every other month. I hoped that it was fairly egalitarian, levelling the playing field for people who didn’t have the advantage of a ready-made network in the form of university papers or postgraduate journalism courses. You could come along, have a drink, and hear about the fortunes of different newspapers, the relative merits of their graduate trainee programmes, and which newsroom was looking for a junior reporter.
Nowadays, I do most of my “networking” (sorry about the scare-quotes, but it is a horrible word) through Twitter. The ecosystem there is full of fascinating niches, and you can tailor your experience to your interests: I regularly talk to feminist bloggers, video game journalists, political reporters and comedy writers. Again, it’s more egalitarian: there are fewer gatekeepers between you and the people who you might want to impress, or who might want to impress you. And because you are just “words on a screen”, it actually makes what you know more important. No one knows, or cares, who your parents are or what school you went to. It’s about how engaging you are right now.
Networking is best when it’s organic: fundamentally, it’s about being interested in meeting new people. I’ve made far more useful connections through Twitter than I have through LinkedIn, and Biz Stone and the boys don’t feel the need to send me billions of pleading emails about how I have new “connections” waiting for me.
So get out there, and get talking. No warm white wine required.