Master networkers constantly reach out to those around them, even in ways others might consider rude or just impractical — like overhearing a conversation at a restaurant or café and joining in. "I'm the person who talks to you on the airplane," says Brooke Emery, a New York City-based marketing consultant who describes herself as a "people collector." Such outgoing behavior has helped her amass what she calls her "jellybean jar of people," and friends rely on her as the go-to person to put them in touch with anyone they need.
If you want to fill your own jellybean jar with useful people, some places are better for networking than others. The best places are industry events where you'll meet folks just like you. If you're a woman working in the food industry in New York, this might mean getting involved with groups like the New York Women's Culinary Alliance. At these sorts of events, you'll be with your own tribe, with people who work in your field and share common interests and knowledge. These are excellent places to meet potential collaborators or future employers.
Think creatively about places to mingle with people in your field. Marci Alboher, a journalist and author of One Person/Multiple Careers, plays a monthly poker game with other journalists. "I keep up with what's going on in the industry, mix business and pleasure, and have deepened relationships by having that regular activity with a group of people," she says.
Your leisure activities and non-work-related interests also offer smart places to network. After all, you will have at least one thing in common with the woman who goes to your yoga class, even if you don't otherwise occupy the same career or social sphere. But that's good, because it gives you a chance to grow your social network in unexpected new directions.
"I think creativity and real breakthrough ideas come from unusual places, and not just from hanging out with people just like you," says Beth Schoenfeldt, founder of Ladies Who Launch, a nationwide network of entrepreneurial women.
So even though it might seem like a cliché, it's worth it to strike up a conversation with someone at the gym.
"I [do yoga] for tranquility, as a release to get away from work, but end up having conversations about work and finding clients," says Mary Carlomagno, a Hoboken, N.J.-based organizer. "It's about finding people who are like-minded."
Networking during leisure activities works because people are not consciously thinking about their jobs. Your shared interests allow you to naturally get to know someone personally before you know them professionally. Emery, the self-described "people-collector," volunteers one night a week at the Ronald McDonald House. When she needed fashion models for a project she was working on, she discovered that another volunteer owns a modeling agency. The two ended up working together.
Don't neglect the most obvious networking tool of all — the Internet. A number of online social networks have huge memberships hailing from around the globe. They are open 24/7, and it's relatively easy to locate people with similar interests and ambitions. One downside: It's so easy to form connections online that those ties can be weaker than bonds that grow from face-to-face interactions.
"Human beings are designed for small-scale social interaction," says Andrew Zolli, curator of Pop!Tech, an annual conference of "visionary thinkers" from diverse fields. "All of this [online networking] is making in-person connection more important." Some sites, like Meetup.com, attempt to address this problem by coordinating face-to-face events.
Most important, don't give up. If one venue doesn't seem fruitful at first, keep circulating at other places. "Just do it," says Mark Doerschlag, who runs Mark's Guide, a listing of professional events in Boston. "It's about getting out there. Repeatedly."