Welcome to the world of networking….
OK, lets be honest, for most of us networking really has become a dirty word. We know we need to do it, but we are so sick and tired of standing around a room full of strangers, eating cocktail frankfurts, making small talk, feeling awkward and dreading someone coming over to us and starting a conversation that we will never be able to escape from.
So what are some of the strategies that will remove these feelings of dread and have you running to networking events fully prepared to do business? Here are 20 of my top tips that have helped me to build my business over many years. They address nerves, not knowing what to say, overcoming awkwardness, being prepared and lots more.
In 10 minutes time you will be armed with some very simple strategies to help you become a networking guru.
1. Do your homework.
I am a firm believer in doing my networking homework. I like to know who will be attending a networking event and I find that this helps me to get mentally prepared and ready to understand the types of conversations that could be had, the mood of the room, the reason for the meeting and so on. Turning up blind tends to lead to wandering aimlessly and spending the whole session figuring out who is there and why. If you have been invited as a guest by someone, ask them to give you some background so you know what you are attending. It really will pay off in the long run.
2. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
My biggest peeve at networking events is being dismissed by someone who acts bored the minute they meet you – and they don’t even have the decency to hide it. Instead they look everywhere but at you and openly act bored, like they are looking for someone more interesting and with more “potential” (OK – in my case they may be but it really is rude). It is a cliche but never judge a book by its cover in the world of networking. Take the time to communicate with the people you meet, find out as much as you can about them and then if you can’t see a way to do business (I actually ask this question – how can we do business together?), it is fine to excuse yourself and move on to your next prospect.
3. Learn to ask open ended questions
This is a great skill for anyone who really can’t stand the awkwardness of small talk and meeting people for the first time. The golden rule here is to ask the other person questions about themselves or their business – so rather than asking simple questions that can be answered with a “yes/no” answer, go for the questions that need a real answer – “so, can you tell me about the services your business offers”, “what is your competitive advantage”, “how has your industry changed in the past 10 years”, “where do you think your industry is heading in the next 10 years” and so on. This gets people actually talking and communicating.
4. Read todays newspaper
For many people the hardest part of networking is running out of things to say. So I make a point of reading the paper and taking note of five or six stories that are general enough to be conversation starters in any situation. There are always a few current “hot topics” which will get people talking, especially if you get good at tip #4 – asking open ended question – “so what do you think about……”
5. Don’t get there too early
I always try to avoid arriving early at a networking event. There is nothing worse than standing in a room with one other person, feeling a sense of awkwardness and praying desperately for more people to arrive. Of course I guess you could see this as an opportunity and a captive audience, but it rarely feels that way at the time.
6. You are not going to the gallows, so remember to smile.
It is amazing how many people network with a grimace on their face as opposed to a warm, friendly smile. Make eye contact and show a few teeth (ideally in a smile not a snarl) and you will be amazed how many people welcome you into their conversations simply because you look friendly.
7. Don’t just stick with people you know
Many of us look around a room full of strange people trying to find a friendly and familiar face so that we have someone to clutch onto. Once we have found that friendly face it becomes way too easy to spend the entire networking event chatting to someone who already knows you and what you do, instead of seeking new business contacts. The key here is to be brave enough to walk up to strangers and be prepared to stick your hand out and introduce yourself. The more you do it the easier it gets. Remember, networking is marketing and marketing is all about building your business. By all means say hello and connect with friends and current clients, but use networking as a tool to get new customers.
8. Drinking does not make you more networkable
Sorry to break the bad news here, but there are those folk who think that a few stiff drinks will help them to relax and make it easier to mingle. Sure it might, but what message does it send? Seeing someone guzzling beer does not make them more appealing as a person to do business with. I suggest that you keep drinking alcohol to a minimum at these events. The concept that you need to drink to be social went the way of “driving your self home from the pub because you were too drunk to walk” – the idea of networking events is to portray the fact that you are a professional, someone that other people will want to work with not drink with.
9. Take plenty of business cards and promotional material
It is amazing how often people turn up at networking events without business cards. I have a mental check list – business cards, two pens, some brochures and possibly a couple of my books, depending on the event. The key here is to be prepared before you head to a networking event. How many promises to catch up and follow up never happen because you can’t find their card, then you can’t remember the business name, then you simply put it in the too hard basket?
10. Keep a pen handy and write notes on the back of cards
I always write memory joggers on the back of business cards. It might be something about what the person said, something they were wearing, a distinctive body characteristic or some follow up that is required. This has jogged my memory when I have stumbled across a business card from people I have met years earlier. One word of advice though, don’t write these notes down when the person is standing there as this can be seen as rude, especially in certain cultures like Japan. Find a quiet space and do your note writing but don’t put it off.
11. Wear something distinctive
This is an oldie but a goodie. Some people make a point of wearing something distinctive so they stand out and can be remembered at networking functions. It might sound corny but in a room with 300 people, it really can be hard to stand out and as much as we might really want to blend in, standing out will get us noticed and that leads to new contacts, being memorable and new business.
12. Hang out near the the food
When people are eating they are far more likely to strike up a conversation. They are relaxed, often a bit guilty because they are eating something they think shouldn’t and there is of course a common topic for discussion – the food. So if you hang out near the buffet you may find it easier to meet people and have some good conversations.
13. Look for groups of people rather than individuals
It is always wise to find a group of people where you can kind of muscle your way, stand and observe quietly and then slowly become a part of the conversation. When we are in a group we behave a bit like penguins – we will shuffle to let other penguins in and then huddle back together. My advice here though is to be quiet when you first enter a group, wait a while and someone will talk to you. If you enter a group and start taking over the conversation, the group will disband and you will be left on your own.
14. Enlist the aid of others to introduce you
If I am going to a networking event where I know one or two people who I know are very well connected I will often ring and ask them if they would mind introducing me to people at the event. In fact I have done this many times and it works really well. The person then has a mission and a job, that is to drag me around and introduce me to as many quality contacts as possible – so it is an express form of networking. Best of all, if we get stuck in a scenario where we don’t want to be, the host can easily excuse us with the statement “Sorry we can’t chat, I am trying to introduce Andrew to as many people as possible tonight”. Perfect.
15. Offer a compliment (but be sincere)
If you struggle with an opening line when meeting new people the oldest tried and tested method is to offer a compliment. You may choose to go up to someone and compliment them about something they are wearing or something they have done (if you know a bit about them). The biggest key to making this work is to make sure your compliment is sincere. If it’s not, people will not dismiss you and deservedly so.
16. Focus on the person in front of you
I made mention last week about my irritation with people being bored when talking to others at networking events. I think that it is important to give 100% of your attention to whoever is in front of you, even if they may not be a potential contact or business lead. Rather than acting bored, excuse yourself and move on.
17. Go with a target in mind.
Often heading to a networking event with a specific “target” in mind will give you a sense of purpose and an outcome from the event. Do your homework, know who you want to meet and why you want to meet them and then go for it. Setting goals always gets results.
18. Use the other person’s name in the conversation.
As Dale Carnegie stated “the sweetest sound to any person is their own name”. When you are introduced to a person, respond using their name and use it repeatedly in the conversation. If you are one of those people who forgets a name as soon as someone says it, you may find that this technique will help.
19. Make sure you are enthusiastic in your responses when asked about your business.
When you meet a person at a networking event, the one question they are bound to ask is “so what do you do?”. Now, how you answer this is vitally important – remembering that the words don’t mean as much as your body language and the emotion in your voice (non verbal communication accounts for up to 90% of meaning we take from any encounter). So, it is important to have a positive, energetic and memorable response to the question “so what do you do?”. Easier said than done, but be playful, try new ideas, have a laugh at yourself and people will remember you.
20. Fast follow up get’s results.
Many people are great at networking but lousy at following up. So why bother to network in the first place? Great networkers will follow up the next day. If you say you will do something, do it. This will impress people and show that you are not only professional but also keen.
My last piece of advice is simple. The need to network is becoming increasingly obvious. It is a cheap way to market your business and most of the time you get to meet decision makers. The more networking you do when you are armed with some simple ideas like these, the easier it becomes. Now the key is to go out and network.