Networking. The very thought of it is enough to fill many people with dread. The small talk; awkward questions; selling yourself; plastering a smile on your face and pretending to be something you’re not – ugh!
The problem is, if that’s how you perceive networking, chances are you’re going about it the wrong way.
In fact, let’s not call it networking at all – let’s call it relationship building – because that is essentially what networking is all about. It’s about building relationships that may one day have a significant impact on your career or business success.
As the saying goes, it’s not what you know, but who you know. It may not seem fair, but it’s the reality of life. Rather than work against it, work with it. Use it in your favour.
Your success is largely dependent on the relationships and connections you form. While this is true everywhere, it’s even more important in regional areas where more people know each other.
If people know you and think positively about you, they are more likely to make referrals to you and for you.
These word of mouth recommendations have a huge influence, as we value and trust the advice and opinions of people we know. It’s human nature. Networking is your opportunity to build these relationships and recommendations.
For me, networking has been hugely beneficial. The bulk of my business is a direct result of the relationships I’ve formed and nurtured with a wide range of people in both my personal and professional life over many years. It’s not advertising or marketing; it’s networking. Most people I work with, I already know.
So how do I network? What do I do? Here are my top tips for networking successfully:
1. Reframe what networking means. See it as relationship building. Your aim is to build the number of people who know, like and respect you; not to sell yourself or your business (although that will be a beneficial by-product if you network well).
2. Think broadly and be open to opportunities. Networking isn’t just formal meet and greet or official networking events. It’s your personal friendships, your relationships with colleagues and former classmates, your volunteer work, your social media presence, your involvement with professional groups – in fact, it’s building and nurturing any relationships you have, or want to have.
3. Be authentic. While you may need to ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ in terms of confidence, don’t present yourself as someone you’re not. Be who you are and bring the whole of you to the conversation – both personal and professional. You shouldn’t have to shift personalities. Remember, your aim is to build trust.
4. Be generous. Networking isn’t about greed, it’s about generosity. It’s about giving, much more than taking. Nothing turns people off more than someone who is desperately selling themselves, or pushing their business and interests without coming up for air. It doesn’t mean you don’t promote yourself (more on that later), but focus on giving first. What can you offer? Can you give the person advice, expertise, a helpful tip, a referral or recommendation, an introduction? Ask yourself what the person needs, and then see if it’s something you can provide. People who give generously are more likely to be thought of positively by the person they’re speaking with.
5. Ask questions and then listen. Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so ask them. Show interest in the other person and avoid jumping in. A great line to use is, “Tell me more about…”. Focus on the person you’re speaking with. Give them your attention and try not to let your eyes roam the room.
6. Be prepared. Think of interesting questions (in advance if you can), but don’t tie yourself in knots trying to be too clever. If you’re at a workshop, ask other attendees what they found the most interesting part of the day; what they learnt; or what made them want to attend the workshop in the first place. Think outside the standard ‘what do you do?’ question, or at least follow up with something like ‘what’s your favourite part of your job?’ or ‘what’s the biggest challenge in your industry at the moment?’.
7. Lift people up. Compliment people on their success, even if they – or their business – are in competition with you. Make people feel good about themselves. Support other people and they’ll be more likely to support you.
8. Be enthusiastic. If you’re not enthusiastic, how can you expect other people to be? Enthusiasm is engaging. Even dull topics can be made exciting with enthusiasm.
9. Push outside your comfort zone. While nurturing existing relationships is important, don’t go to networking events and only speak to people you already know. Challenge yourself to speak with at least three new people. Introduce yourself to the person standing next to you at the bar while you wait for a drink. Remember, you won’t be the only person who is feeling nervous.
10. Know who you want to speak with, but don’t restrict networking only to those people you think can directly benefit you. Sometimes you’ll be surprised by who knows who, and while the person you’re speaking with might not be a potential customer or employer themselves, they may be best friends with someone who is.
11. Look for opportunities to collaborate. Rather than see competitors as opposition, see them as allies and colleagues. Work with people in similar fields on big projects, or create opportunities with shared benefits. Bounce ideas off them; refer clients each other’s way; give advice. This can have immediate and ongoing pay-offs.
12. Join professional groups in person, and on social media. If one doesn’t exist for what you’re after – create one! I’m involved in a wonderfully supportive group for female entrepreneurs on Facebook, and part of a small networking group of fellow female entrepreneurs based in Gippsland. Both groups are a great source of information, support, guidance, advice, and inspiration – with the added benefit of being full of potential customers, collaboration partners, and referral opportunities.
13. Be clear on what you want from the person you’re speaking with. Ask for it and be specific, but keep any requests small and reasonable. Again, do the thinking in advance. Instead of asking someone for their advice on starting a business, ask for their top three tips.
14. Ask for recommendations and referrals – but only after you have formed a relationship first. Remember, word of mouth recommendations are incredibly powerful, so seek them out when you can. Once you’ve established a strong relationship with someone, they will often be happy to give you a plug, introduction, or referral if requested.
15. Be a good guest. If you’re at an event, offer to help – even if it’s just carrying a couple of glasses back to the bar. Be polite. Smile. Say please and thank you.
16. Know your elevator pitch. Can you articulate what you do? It’s important you know how to describe yourself and your job (or business), to other people in just a couple of lines. Put thought into this and practice it so you can respond confidently, clearly and concisely when asked. Make your pitch engaging, but simple. Expand on it only if asked to avoid falling into the pushy sales trap.
17. Don’t apologise. Networking is not an imposition, it’s relationship building. It’s ok to be nervous, shy or awkward when networking, but don’t apologise for it. Be proud of who you are and don’t talk yourself down (never say “I’m just a….”), even if you feel overwhelmed to be talking with someone in a more senior or successful position than you.
18. Know to wrap up a conversation. It’s ok to say, ‘it’s been nice to meet you’, or ‘lovely to speak with you’, and then politely excuse yourself. Other wrap ups include excusing yourself to go to the bathroom, get a drink or something to eat, or explaining you need to speak with someone before they leave. Whatever you say, be gracious and polite.
19. Follow up. If you swap business cards or someone gives you a beneficial tip or referral, follow it up with a short and sincere email of thanks, a private message on LinkedIn, or a phone call. Acknowledgement and gratitude get you places.
20. Practice. Make the most of opportunities to casually network and strike up conversations with colleagues in your workplace over lunch. Or, instead of jumping straight onto your smartphone in the breaks of meetings or training, use the time as an opportunity to form relationships and practice your new networking skills. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills like networking. She is a communications specialist, speaker, trainer, author and director of Methmac Communications. To find out more about how Leah can help you, visit www.methmac.com.au.