Nervous of Networking?
Networking shouldn’t be scary. It’s something we do without thinking, quite naturally in our human relationships with friends and relatives. For example, someone might ask you ‘Where’s the best place to get a haircut in your town’ and the chances are you will be able to suggest somewhere you’ve been and feel comfortable referring that person to go to. Or even if you haven’t been yourself you might have heard one or two people speaking favourably about somewhere, so you will think to mention that salon too. Essentially networking is as simple as that; all we need to do is to channel and focus that same innate social skill consciously for commercial or professional gain.
What did networking used to mean 20 years ago?
Although it has been going on for centuries (think Freemasons), formal networking is a relatively recent phenomena. Fifteen or twenty years ago I think it’s fair to say that the term ‘networking’ was used almost exclusively by IT specialists. It was about linking computers to each other, to printers, modems, and so forth. Fundamentally, the same principle applies in the real world as it does for IT equipment. Like computers, we need connection in order to achieve communication.
As the economy grew more difficult there was a shift towards businesses finding alternatives to costly means of advertising and promotion, to re-discovering one which is not only cheaper but goes to the very root of trade; human interaction.
Professional networking has taken off as a phenomenon for people to grow their businesses exponentially with negligible outlay. Different types of networking are available and we recommend engaging in all of them:
Manifest is a home based business in the Dales. Back in the early days (the business was founded in 1999) we relied on advertising and client referrals for new business. I worked essentially in isolation, communicating only with my suppliers and clients, so only they really knew Manifest existed.
Since discovering networking my business has flourished, with the majority of new clients now coming from contacts that I have made through engaging in professional networking. I also meet my best suppliers this way. I am regularly ‘out and about’ meeting other businesses and as a client said to me recently “Everyone seems to know you”. It’s given me a business confidence that I lacked.
How to network well in the flesh – Be brave – everyone is in the same boat, and the chances are many of the people present are as nervous as you are. Experienced networkers will spot you if you are looking unsure and will come to your rescue, so you don’t need to worry about who you are going to talk to. Look around for other people who look a bit lost and hook up with them. Remember everyone is there because they want to meet other people, so you are not going to be at risk of trying to engage someone in conversation who doesn’t want to talk to you.
- Be bright – avoid the temptation to disappear into a sea of grey and black suits; wear something eye-catching and bright so that you stand out and catch the eyes of everyone present. Remember the lady in red is going to be more visible than the one in black (even if that does make you look slim) and a jazzy tie for the gents can be a good ice-breaker.
- Be memorable – confident, positive and engaging in your demeanour. When you are speaking to someone think about how you want them to remember you; don’t whinge or bitch about other people in the room, or the venue, or what problems you are having with your business. A positive, cheerful person will be more likely to make a lasting positive impression than someone on a downer about something.
- Be smart – think about who you want/need to talk to. Often in advance, or when you arrive at an event, there will be a list of the other guests when you register. Take a look and think about who might be interesting for you to try to track down and get introduced to, or who you have met before but would like to catch up with. There is no harm in saying to some of the people you meet; ‘I’m looking for xx as I would like to speak to them about yy’; they may know the person already or be interested in what you wanted to speak to them about.
- Be proactive – give out your cards and/or literature. The cardinal sin (and we’ve all done it at some point) is to arrive at a networking event realizing you have nothing with you to give the people you meet. Don’t forget the box of business cards (as I did in Bradford recently) or allow yourself to run out before having more printed. If you’ve got fliers and leaflets, carry them too in case there is an opportunity to display them or hand them out to someone who is interested in your product/service, but be circumspect with them and avoid pressing them on everyone willy nilly.
- Be specific – let people know what you want to achieve. If there is a particular type of business owner you are interested to meet, tell the people you talk to; they may know just the person and be able to refer them to you. Don’t assume that people will have enough understanding of what you do for a living for them to be able to instinctively guess who you might want to work with; make it easy for them – spell it out.
- Be a facilitator – put people together who you think can help each other. It’s easy to do this. As an example, recently at a networking meeting I met someone who had only recently started her business and was on the lookout for help with setting up her accounts. Ten minutes later I met a book-keeper who mentioned she wanted to reach start-up businesses, so naturally I pointed across the room to the lady I’d spoken to earlier and said ‘that’s who you need to speak to next’. Do the same outside of the networking event and you’ll find that people grow to respect you as someone who is genuinely prepared to spend time connecting people even where there is no direct personal benefit. People will always be grateful for a good referral and will remember that you have taken the trouble. Next time they meet someone who needs your skills, you’ll naturally spring to their mind.
- Be organised – collect contact details. Don’t expect to remember everyone you meet. At my age I can’t even remember my friends’ names half the time, so collecting cards is essential. Add them to your Outlook and note where you met them, it will help to jog your memory some weeks later when something crops up that might be useful to share with them.
The best networkers are those who approach networking with a ‘how can I help the people I talk to’ attitude.
- Be considerate – don’t barge into a conversation because you have identified you want to speak to one of the parties. Hang around tentatively nearby and endeavour to make eye contact at the appropriate moment to signal that you would like to join in. Good networkers encourage others to join in a conversation and will naturally invite you into the conversation when they can. Once you’re in it, don’t dominate a conversation.
- Be interested – it’s not just about you. Remember to keep asking questions of the other people. So many times people fall into the trap of talking about themselves without asking the other person about their business. Try to limit yourself initially to a couple of sentences briefly explaining what you do, then ask what the other person does. Ask them who they want to be introduced to. As well as empowering you to help them it will hopefully prompt them to ask you the same so you will get the chance to get your message across too.
Networking only really works if you use the contacts you make after the event.
- Contact – make a connection afterwards with the people you’ve met; through email, social media, or for coffee
- Consolidate – follow the activity of the interesting people you’ve met and interact with them
- Remind – periodically contact people when you have something relevant to share with them
- Remember – call people to mind in the course of your work to see if they can help you
- Repeat – don’t just attend once, successful networkers work hard at it, you can’t expect to win business straight away, but it will come as you build relationships
If you’ve enjoyed this article, please Like their Facebook page, follow Jane on Twitter @manifestjane