Q: I was unimpressed with the letter writer in a recent column about time-wasting networkers. Networking is a complex skill set. The law student who annoyed the writer was taking initiative just by requesting the meeting and was reaching out the best way he knew. Did the writer have all his or her networking skills perfected in law school? Are there really any "bad" networking requests?
A: You raise a fair point: Our species has perfected the hardware and software aspects of networking -- but the wetware upgrades are incomplete, and the end users need training.
So let's say you're a student preparing to enter the workforce, ready to network. You have a LinkedIn profile and the names of potential sources in your field. Just fire off an email and invite them to coffee -- right?
Not so fast. These aren't non-player characters in a video game, handing out magic talismans and hints to each adventurer who stumbles past. They're people with piles of obligations and precious little free time, and -- let's be blunt -- they owe you nothing.
But here's the good news: Many of them, like the original letter writer, want to pay their success forward. Devora Zack, author of "Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected," has hints to help networking newbies activate that goodwill.
• Be prepared. Before you meet, use your "instant access to anyone" technology to research your contact so you can skip over the basic, open-ended questions ("How did you get started in this field?") and "impress me with how much you know about me," says Zack. (Anti-creeper pro tip: Keep the focus on your contact's public accomplishments and field of study -- not memorizing the names and ages of their kids and pets.)
• Be specific. Be clear about what you hope to get from the encounter, such as suggestions on skills to acquire or blogs to follow. Keep your initial email or phone call short and to the point, though polite. If your contact was recommended by a mutual connection, says Zack, lead with that information.
• Make it easy to say yes. You may think inviting a contact to dinner is generous, but it's not realistic for most busy professionals. But, Zack notes, almost anyone can make time for a 10-minute phone call. Make yourself available, make the most of the time you're granted, and let your contact take the lead on offering more.
• Don't give up -- follow up. "Time flows very differently for jobseekers," Zack says. Professional contacts are busy and overwhelmed, so "don't write them off if you haven't heard back from them ... you might find a reason to reach out a few months down the road." Of course, you'll want to have sent a thank you email long before then.
• Be gracious. When approaching a potential contact, Zack says to ask yourself, "How can I position myself as someone helpful?" Granted, if you're still a student, you probably won't have industry connections or insider knowledge to offer. But you can still make small gestures that show you're "tuned in and generous and going the extra step," Zack says. If you pay attention, you can pick up information to help you find a small gift or recommend a restaurant or binge-worthy Netflix series relevant to your contact's interests. After a thank you message, "I thought you might like this" is one of the best excuses to follow up.