Meaningful Contact

Want to build your business organically, discover valuable professional resources, and earn high-value referrals? Professional networking can help you reach all these goals and more. The benefits of networking are no secret, yet many professionals dread doing it, or they approach it in a disorganized and ineffective manner.

Diane Darling is a speaker, author, and coach who specializes in networking. She’s written two books on the topic and works with organizations to help their people form stronger, more productive connections with peers.

Darling explains that effective networking involves more than handing out business cards and keeping a LinkedIn profile updated. With a process and intention, photographers can build a network that yields dividends for years to come.


First, it’s important to understand what networking is and what it isn’t. It is not a sales pitch. It is not a contact-gathering free-for-all. Networking entails building relationships and establishing trust. Darling defines networking in two ways:

  1. Networking is building relationships before you need them. Your network is something to be called on when you need resources, advice, or help. If you wait until you need something to try to establish a relationship, you’re already a few steps behind. Think proactively about relationship building.
  2. Networking is the transference of trust. When you refer someone from your network, that’s a transference of trust. You’re telling your contact, I trust this person to do a good job on your project, and so should you. Knowing that your contacts are extending themselves on your behalf, it’s important to understand why they would give out your name.

“Embrace your inner introvert, but be a functioning introvert.”

Diane Darling

Meeting and engaging with people in a social setting is easier for some people than others. Effective networking doesn’t require you to deny your core personality traits, so even introverts can do it. What it does require is that you be able to operate in a social setting. “Embrace your inner introvert, but be a functioning introvert,” says Darling.

Understand how you’re being perceived if you separate yourself. When you hide in the corner because you’re shy, people may misinterpret your actions as rude or unwelcoming. If you’re feeling self-conscious or anxious, keep in mind that the event you’re attending is not about you. Other people are probably feeling the same way you are, and you can do them a great service by engaging with them and helping them emerge from their shells.


To get the most out of networking efforts, Darling suggests several action items.

Do your research. Prior to attending a conference or networking event, do your homework. Use LinkedIn or other social media, as well as company websites and Google searches, to find professionals who are going to be at the event. Reach out to them in advance to make a connection.

Get involved. Volunteering at an event is a great way to give yourself a sense of purpose. You have a job to do, a reason to be there, and a directive to speak to people about what you’re doing at the event.

Ask the first question. If you’re at a presentation, when the presenter asks for questions, be the first one to raise your hand. They appreciate it, and it opens doors for follow-up conversations.

Say hello. Walk up to someone and utter the most basic greeting in your language. It’s really that simple.

Help others who are struggling. At networking events, seek out people who are standing by themselves and engage them. Invite them to join your group, or if you sense they’re uncomfortable in group settings, steer them into one-on-one interactions. If you can help them feel comfortable, they will be grateful.

Have a memorable leave-behind. Yes, you can transmit contact info digitally, but if you hand someone something tactile and memorable, you may stand out more in their memory of the event. Darling carries paper business cards with a QR code that links to networking tips. Photographers could do something similar with a link to a portfolio, a fun behind-the-scenes video, or a list of key services.

Eat sparingly. Even when the food is delicious, remember that you’re there to network. Darling recommends getting to events early and inviting someone to have a conversation over food at the beginning of the gathering. Then you can walk around unencumbered to meet people.

Speak to the other person’s needs. Instead of talking about what you’re looking for, talk about what value you could provide. Talk in terms of how you can help them with what they need.

Think about engagement. You’ve made an investment to be at an event. Don’t let it end with simply showing up. Consider how you engage people. Share tips, knowledge, problem-solving solutions. Figure out different ways to stay engaged and keep the conversation going.

Follow up. Create action items for yourself based on your interactions. Darling likes to categorize the people she’s met at an event so she can follow up appropriately:

  • People who don’t require follow-up
  • People she wants to follow up with by offering a resource, connecting them with other people, etc.
  • People she can interact with at a later date

“The key is to make an organizational system that works for you,” says Darling. “Categorize people in a way that makes sense and then organize your follow-up.”

“We’re all worried about coming off as needy, but we’re in this to make a living.”

Diane Darling

Networking opportunities are increasingly happening online. For virtual meetings, Darling recommends following many of the same principles when it comes to researching contacts, looking for ways to engage, and following up.

If you’re in a virtual meeting with a lot of people, Darling suggests taking a screenshot showing all the attendees so you have a list of everyone in the meeting. Make notes during the meeting about who you’d like to contact for a follow-up. If you want to streamline the process, you could even write a series of messages before the event that you can copy and paste to quickly connect.

It also helps to be noticeable during online meetings. Instead of sitting on mute with her camera off, Darling stays engaged and attentive with her video on. She wears a noticeable red shirt and keeps some artwork or signage with her name on it in the background. When given the opportunity, she asks a question or makes a comment to the group. “I meet everyone there if I ask a question,” she says.


Networking doesn’t always provide a direct route to benefitting your business. Usually, there are twists and turns, but good things tend to come back around when you network with the genuine intention of helping others first. Ask people how you can be a resource for them. Figure out how you can connect others and help people accomplish their goals. When you position yourself as a connector and a resource, the benefits to you ultimately bubble up.

That said, don’t be afraid to talk about what you do and what you need from others. Networking should be a mutually beneficial give-and-take. “We’re all worried about coming off as needy, but we’re in this to make a living,” says Darling. Be honest and open about your needs and what a good relationship looks like to you. When you’re forthright, it’s easier to form genuine connections, and that’s when good things happen. 

Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.