Cultivating professional relationships isn’t just for bankers and corporate types. That’s right, even nerds need connections.

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Cultivating professional relationships isn’t just for bankers and corporate types. That’s right, even nerds need connections.

No one is preaching that now more than Alaina Levine, author of a new book on the matter called “Networking for Nerds.”

But let’s back up — just who is a nerd, anyway?

Nerds aren’t defined by glasses, books or a sci-fi-related career, says Levine. Indeed, nerds come in all fields — tech nerds, PR nerds, word nerds.

“My definition is someone who is curious about world, and wants to use his or her skills to make an impact,” Levine says. “Nerds see both problems and solutions, and they’re not afraid to ask questions.”

One of the biggest challenges nerds face in networking? The misconception that networking steals time from other, more valuable work. In fact, Levine says, joining LinkedIn groups or attending mixers may offer opportunities to share work-related challenges and consider others’ problems.

Another misconception is that it’s best to network only with those in your own field — why should a biologist talk to a plumber?

“To constantly innovate on regular basis, we need an influx of new sources for inspiration and ideas,” Levine says. “How do we get those new sources? Through networking, and having conversations with people.”

As a business intelligence engineer for the University of Washington and self-defined nerd, 34-year-old Michael Takos has discovered that conferences outside his field of expertise provide ample new openings.

“If you branch out of your nerdy area, you can get more social cachet,” Takos says, and add to your repertoire of skills, such as a marketing or entrepreneurial mind-set.

Yes, social cachet. “Networking is the only way to find those hidden game-changing opportunities that can make a difference in your career,” Levine says. It puts you and your talents in the spotlight, positioning you for job opportunities, awards, and committee opportunities, she says.

(Courtesy of Wiley)
(Courtesy of Wiley)

Say a nerd is at a conference. Levine suggests an icebreaker to kick off a conversation: “What’s your name, and what’s the best part of your job?” It gets people discussing what they love to talk about most: themselves.

Walking up to a complete stranger and chatting doesn’t come naturally, Takos says, but he strives to break the ice by noticing an interesting bag or tie, or asking for an opinion on various speakers.

Takos sets up conference meetings in advance with those in his field, or those whose work he appreciates — such as guests on favorite podcasts. Asking in a respectful way for limited time may earn a yes, he says. Levine suggests requesting 15-minute coffee meetings with people you’d like to know better.

Bill Doran says costumes are natural icebreakers. Doran is a former Microsoft employee who founded his own costume-prop company three years ago, then networked extensively at comic conventions, where attendees dress up as favorite characters.

“I had to start doing the whole business card thing,” he says. “Early on, there were a lot of people interested in hiring me to build something for them.” The cards and introductions did the trick — today, he works on video-game commercials in Los Angeles, as well as creating prop-making instructional content.

Novice nerd networkers should concentrate on listening, Levine says. “Ask a question here and there, but try to listen, and be quiet and contemplative” when in conversation, she suggests.

Extricating yourself from a talkative fellow nerd may go more smoothly with Levine’s tip — say something like, “It’s been so interesting talking to you, I’d like to follow up. Can I have your business card?” Shake hands and move on.

Doran offers advice to those just getting started in networking — offering what you hope to find in networking. “If they want help, they need to be helpful,” he says. “If they want to receive friendliness, they need to be more friendly, and if they want to be more giving, they should be more giving.”

Good advice for the nerdy — and not.