If you've ever gotten a job or a gig because someone "thought of you," you've benefited from networking. Good networking doesn't require anything slimy or selfish. It requires that you define yourself. And that means paying more attention to how you act when you meet or catch up with people.
In "Networking for Nerds," engineer Benjamin Reinhardt offers a networking plan for people who don't like to network. We've discussed a lot of these ideas, like how to ask for a favour and how to get to the point when reaching out. What caught our eye is this method for defining yourself to others:
Everybody has a "projection" — a small representation — of each person they know living in their heads. You know that friend who's "the badass interface designer who is looking to get into machine learning and consults?" She has an amazing projection and makes it easy for opportunities to find her.
A projection can be distinct — "Ben is looking for X, Y, Z and can help with A, B, C." Or it can be fuzzy — "Ben's that guy with curly hair I think who I met at that meetup and we talked about a bunch of interesting stuff."
Instead of your projection, you could call it your narrative, your slogan, your "deal." And you're projecting it whether or not you try, to everyone you meet. So ask yourself, if the people you know had to describe you and your deal, what would they say? What do you want them to say?
Clarifying people's impression of you doesn't mean being fake, it actually means being yourself — being the person you want to think of yourself as. For example, when people ask what I do, I can tend to get coy or downplay it. A few years ago, my wife pointed this out, and encouraged me to describe myself and my work more clearly — including what goals I'm currently trying to reach.
So to describe my work at Lifehacker, I bring up my favourite posts — my go-to is "How to Get a Cat to Like You." People usually love to hear about it, and I get to talk about the fun time I had writing that post, and how I'm always looking for more ideas that let me ask slightly silly questions to experts.
I also bring up one of my side projects, a fiction podcast called Roommate From Hell, and try to express how fun and funny it is. I don't actually say "my current goal is to get more listeners," but I make it pretty clear who's in my target audience.
So think about the best definition of your work, your status, and your goals. Practice it a bit. Don't memorise it word for word, but have something to say when people ask you what you're up to. Everyone would prefer hearing a little bit of a pitch than hearing "eh, kind of nothing, except a little of this, but it's not important, and I don't really know..." Give them something to hook onto, to remember, and when they next hear about a relevant idea or opportunity, to "think of you."
Networking for Nerds [Benjamin Reinhardt]