Networking: Using Science To Grow Your Business

The googled definition of networking is to “interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career.” This has often been a frightening prospect for many, and certainly for me at first, mainly because the definition itself carries with it a certain vagueness. Just how does one go about finding the right people with whom to exchange that crucial information (and what is that?), and develop those contacts (and who are those?) that are vital to the furthering of one’s career (and how to you know which ones are)? For a scientist, the prospects of networking and marketing oneself are especially harrowing, because there just isn’t one single path from point A to point B. We can’t just sit at our desks and work and write. We have to get out of our chairs and go talk to people or introduce ourselves. That isn’t always the biggest draw for a typical scientist. But this blog is all about NOT being the typical scientist.

I heard this term a lot during my years as a professional actor. I hear it even more now as a postdoc, in that middle place between the intense, transient life of a graduate student and the apparent Valhalla that is life as tenured faculty. The road to such an esteemed future requires perseverance, lots of writing, publishing, and teaching, willingness to be part of a team and engage in service at all levels, and…Networking. It has become clear to me that whether I choose to pursue a career as a professor or as a professional banjo player, the difference between success and missing the target may, in fact, lie in my ability to use networking tools effectively.

I’m no longer afraid of networking the way I once was, a nervous aspiring actress doing one-minute drive by’s of my agent’s offices, trying to appear as if I was “just passing by”:

“Hi! Just passing by and thought I would say hi! Oh, and I’m in this play that opens tonight! Here’s a postcard, hope you can make it! Oh, this old thing? I just found it in the back of my closest, I’m so glad you like it! Oh, ok, well, I’ll condition my hair tonight then, it’s probably just dry. Ok, well, I’m around and ready to audition, gotta go, bye!”

No more of that. I finally get it now. Networking is a science much more than a business. And Science is all about trial and error.

Science, by definition, involves the study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. I have put this into practice with networking. Basically, I experiment with different networking tools, and I observe the results. What works for me I keep. What doesn’t I throw away. So here are the Top 5 Networking Tools that have worked for me:

1. Business cards are a must.

As a scientist, I’ve had business cards since graduate school. As an actor before that, I had business cards. And between those two stages in my life, I had business cards for my “day jobs”. I don’t care who says that in the digital age of social media, who needs business cards. You do. They’re that thing you can give to someone at the end of a meaningful conversation. All you have to do is say “Great talking to you! Here’s my card.” Pull it out of your pocket, your purse, the plastic pocket on the back of your conference badge (I picked this tip up at the networking workshop facilitated by Professor Zakiya Luna and Professor Mariam Lam at the PPFP conference earlier this month and immediately put it into practice. It’s great! If you’re at a conference, you’re always wearing your conference badge, whether you’ve got a suit or a dress with no pockets on).

I cannot tell you how many opportunities have come out of my having a business card and giving it to people, particularly people who have spent time talking to me somewhere, or gone out of their way to provide me with helpful information. And I always try to have a picture on my card now. This makes it so much easier for the recipient. Who knows how many people he or she has met that day. Especially at a conference. By the time they get home and finally pull out all of those cards they amassed during the week, they will have forgotten what you look like. Don’t make it hard for them. Make it easy for them to remember who you are. The easier it is for them to remember you, the easier it is for them to get in touch with you, to follow up on that opportunity they mentioned when they met you, or to mention you to someone else. That’s networking. I had my most recent business cards made on I must say it was one of the quickest and least painful administrative tasks I’ve ever done. And quite fun too.

2. Never underestimate the value of a hand-written thank you note.

This is the single most productive networking tool that I have put into practice. Say I meet someone at a conference, or I have a job interview for something. Within the next day or two after that experience, I write a card with just a quick note (“Thank you for your time, it was great talking to you… Sincerely, Aomawa”).  Inside the card goes one of my business cards (usually even if I gave that person one when we met, because they may have lost it, who knows?), and then in the mail it goes. I think I’ve sealed the deal on getting job offers in large part because of sending a nice thank you note. That’s how important I think it is.

“But can’t I just send an email?” Sure you can, and that’s nice too. But it isn’t a handwritten thank you note. And it’s just because people DON’T send handwritten letters/notes/cards anymore that this gesture is likely to pay big dividends. Like I said before, the science of networking is about experiment and observation. Just try it out and see if it helps you to cultivate or strengthen a relationship. And in the end, no matter what the result, it makes me feel really good to have gone the extra mile like that to express my gratitude for someone’s time and effort. And in the words of Anthony Robbins, “When you are grateful fear disappears and abundance appears.”

3. Follow up.

This is an easy one to drop the ball on. If you meet someone who says “I know this person who would just LOVE your idea, and they have all of this money they would just LOVE to throw at you. I don’t have their number on me, but if you shoot me an email, I would just LOVE to send you their number, and will do it quite happily. In fact, seeing your email will remind me to call them myself and tell them to expect your call, because they’re going to LOVE hearing from you.” – Send that darn email.

Follow up. It’s not hard. But it isn’t easy either. Because following up resides under the heading of “Not urgent but important” relationship-building things (see Eisenhower’s Decision Matrix) that most of us put absolutely last on our To Do list. I once was told outright by a woman who worked on the TV show “24” (which I was in love with back in its heyday) that if I gave her a call she would find something for me on the show. Sounds like a no brainer, right? Well it was. And as much as I loved that show, somewhere between her trailer and my car (and the rest of my life) I put it on the back burner. And that’s where it stayed, until by the time I thought about it again, I’d forgotten everything about that conversation or what she told me to do afterwards. I could have been Jack Bauer’s sidekick for all I know. Learn – as I did – from my sad mistake. I can tell you one thing. I won’t make it again.

4. Don’t be afraid to cold email someone and ask for help.

This is how I found my dissertation topic, and ended up publishing two papers that led to me being able to actually complete and defend my dissertation. I read a wonderful paper that got me very excited about the subject. So I decided to write to its author, and express my profound appreciation for his writing the paper. Then I asked if he was planning to do any more work on the subject, and if so, could I be a part of it. One thing led to another, and suddenly I had a direction for my graduate school research, a topic that actually made me want to get up in the morning and work on it (this is the key to being able to finish a PhD. You have to pick a topic that you actually like and want to learn more about, day after day. This also might sound like a no brainer, but you’d be amazed at how many graduate students miss that step.), and a collaborator along with it. This led to the aforementioned papers, as well as winning awards at conferences, and invited talks on other continents. And it all started with that first email to a stranger.

Now, contacting someone out of the blue by phone or email is scary for a lot of people. Not so much for me, mainly because of my past. As an actor I was often showing up at parties or script readings where I didn’t know many people, and I had to introduce myself to strangers over and over again. I also once had a job doing outreach for a cultural arts center, and that involved a LOT of cold calling of organizations, school department offices, you name it, asking if I could leave flyers there or if they’d be interested in bringing a group to our program, blah, blah, blah. Enough of that, and talking to a stranger becomes much less frightening.

The thing about this tool is if you start with a complement (“I really liked your paper, thank you for writing it.” “I really enjoyed your performance in BLAH BLAH.”), and then you ask them for their feedback on something (“Could you tell me a little bit about how you approached the work?” “How did you get started doing [XYZ]?” “Would you be willing to take a look at something I’ve written and give me your feedback?”), then you’re pretty much home free. First, you’ve complemented them. And who doesn’t like getting complements? Second, you’ve asked them for their opinion, and to talk about themselves. And few people mind talking about themselves and giving their opinions and feedback. This definitely goes for artists (actors, writers, painters), and is a pretty good bet for scientists too.

5. Website. Website. Website.

Yep, you have to have one. And its address should be given on your business card. A link to it should be on your email signature. At the very least it should have a great picture of you, a way to get in contact with you, and a sentence or two that says who you are and what you’re about. For scientists, links for your Research (describe it and include at least one figure that is the money shot from a recent paper), CV, Publications, recently-given talks, and any Press you’ve gotten on your work are also a must. Artists should include photos of their work and how to find it if people want to buy or see it somewhere. Actors in particular should have links to their past work, preferably in the form of a reel that people can just click on.

I was amazed at how easy and inexpensive it was to set up my website, which is with WordPress. Google Sites I’ve heard is good too. Just pick one and put something up to start. You can fine tune later.

You could probably sum all of my suggested tools up as follows:

Make it easy for people to find you and learn about who you are and what you do well. Then make sure that they do.

Whoever you are, and whatever you do, if you want to do more of it, than you have a business. And you are looking to grow that business. No one is going to be the farmer for you. It’s too much work. You have to do it yourself. Put a little science into it, and it might be easier.

By aomawa

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