Sustainable networking: The kindness of advance preparation
In the second installment of a two-part series, Christina C C Willis gives practical advice on how to create and maintain a lasting network successfully
In the previous article of this two-part series, I discussed what networking ‘sustainably’ means, and why it is such a powerful tool for career success. This second article focuses more on the practical applications of sustainable networking, specifically the practice of advanced preparation. Both articles are based on my book Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers; through them I hope to share with you something that has been transformational for me both as a person and a laser scientist.
Advance preparation is a valuable practice that makes you better equipped to handle both professional and personal situations. It is also a kindness to others, because it shows respect for their time and demonstrates that you have considered their needs and expectations.
At its core, sustainable networking is about creating mutually-beneficial professional relationships. Such relationships are built acts of kindness, most of which you will never find in a job description. They include giving and receiving career guidance, providing references and written recommendations, making introductions, talking through experiments, and troubleshooting problems. Advance preparation is one such act of kindness, and one that directly benefits both you and your network connections.
Being prepared allows you a greater sensation of relaxation, eliminating common doubts and anxieties that can arise when interacting with others
Preparing in advance for an interaction, whether online or in person, gives you the opportunity to consider the background and needs of your audience so that you can adapt to them accordingly. Researching your audience to acquire a better understanding of them allows you to tailor your message specifically for that audience by providing appropriate details and context. This limits any potential confusion your audience might experience, keeps them at ease, and makes your communication more efficient. It boosts your signal-to-noise ratio! Being prepared also generally allows you a greater sensation of relaxation, eliminating common doubts and anxieties that can arise when interacting with others.
Let us examine the uses of advance preparation in an archetypal networking scenario: an event labelled ‘networking’ such as a reception or happy hour. This type of event typically involves a room of mostly strangers eating and drinking things as they mingle and make conversation. Especially if this scenario makes you nervous, there are several steps of advance preparation that you can take to improve the experience. The first step is to research the event itself and the organisation hosting it. Knowing the mission statement of the host organisation and the theme of the event will allow you to extrapolate the type of people that will attend and what their interests might be. If there is a guest list that you can examine, this gives you even more information. When you have a clear picture of who the attendees are or are likely to be, you can craft a tailored introduction for yourself and relevant questions or topics of conversation that you can use to engage with others at the event.
It is your responsibility to help your audience understand you, not the other way around
For your introduction, provide a brief description of yourself and information about you that is relevant to the event and the other attendees. If it is a career event, include your name, where you work, and your research topic, but carefully tailor the details to your audience. If the event is within your niche field, using more technical words and descriptions is fine, but if it’s a non-technical event, be prepared to describe yourself and your work without technical jargon. Jargon is noise in your signal if your audience doesn’t understand it. As the person conveying a message (your introduction), it is your responsibility to help your audience understand you, not the other way around. Conscientious adaptation to your audience’s knowledge and background is a valuable kindness. Conversely, confusing your audience with terms they don’t understand benefits no one; it only corrupts your message. So while it is more work for you to adapt, being understood and keeping your audience comfortable is worth the effort.
Planning topics of conversation in advance is also beneficial, especially if conversing with strangers or group settings make you nervous. Before the event, it can be helpful to write down a series of relevant questions you can ask or topics that you can bring up for discussion. The process of writing them down can help you to remember them, but the list can also be brought with you and consulted between conversations (not during!). Most people find meeting new people a little awkward and uncomfortable, and most people also don’t do much advance preparation. So the extra effort on your part will go a long way towards keeping others around you comfortable (a kindness) and makes you memorable in a positive way.
Advance preparation is also very important when contacting new people online or applying for jobs. At the time of this writing, we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and many people are working from home; both networking and applying for jobs may seem out of reach. It’s true that many typical networking opportunities are out of the question right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t network or seek new employment. Video and phone calls, virtual events and happy hours, email, and engagement on social media are all accessible networking opportunities right now, and they can all be used to meet people and make new connections.
When making ‘cold calls’ or sending ‘cold emails’ to new people, advance preparation is especially important because people are inclined to ignore messages from strangers. This is particularly true if the recipient is busy or the message is unclear or irrelevant. In this case, advance preparation allows you to do two things: make the message clear and easy to understand, and make it relevant and interesting. The former minimises the effort the recipient has to put forth to understand the message and the latter makes them actually want to respond.
Advance preparation shows an attention to detail, respect for the time of others, and allows you to be more effective and relaxed
This applies both to connecting with new people and applying for a job. Before you ever pick up the phone or send an email or cover letter, do your advance preparation by researching the person or company. What is the mission statement on their website? What is their main area of research? Do they have a blog or twitter account? If they have a LinkedIn account, do you have any mutual connections who you could ask for an introduction? If it’s a company, who works there? Do you know someone who works there? Or do you know someone, who knows someone, who works there? Answering these kinds of questions through research and talking with existing mutual connections will give you a distinct picture of your audience and how you need to adapt your message (i.e. your email, cover letter, or resume) to make it as clear and relevant as possible to the receiving party.
Advance preparation is also a valuable practice for asking questions. We have all known the sensation of annoyance at someone who asks us for information that they could easily have found themselves with a quick internet search or by re-reading our last email. That internet search and thoroughly reading emails are important kindnesses and valuable advance preparation for asking a question. Why would we get annoyed otherwise? Because when someone doesn’t do those things, it feels as though they expect us to do the work for them; we feel unappreciated. Doing that advance preparation shows that you respect the person’s time and it allows you to craft a question that is more likely to get a relevant answer.
Well-researched, clear, and specific questions yield more helpful answers than vague or extraneous ones. Again, this takes more effort, but it will yield better results and lets your network connection know that you appreciate them and their time.
These are just a few examples of how to incorporate advance preparation into your networking interactions. Advance preparation shows an attention to detail, respect for the time of others, and allows you to be more effective and relaxed. It can make your daily work interactions, email exchanges, and conference trips more pleasant and productive for everyone involved. And fortunately it is a trainable skill; the more you practice advance preparation, the easier and more reflexive it will become, and the benefits of it will accumulate as well.
If you would like more information on the sustainable networking approach and the motivations for adopting it, please see the previous article of this two-part series. My book, Sustainable Networking for Scientists and Engineers, is also available for free download from SPIE Press. I wish you all the best during this strange time, and with your networking and career pursuits.
Christina C C Willis is a laser scientist, writer, and public speaker, living and working in Washington, DC. She specialises in novel, high-power laser development, and has worked in metrology, laser tracking and imaging, and lidar applications. Willis is currently serving as the 2019-2020 Arthur H Guenther Congressional Fellow on Capitol Hill.