How to Learn to Love Networking
Personal relationships are always the key to good business. You can buy networking; you can't buy friendships. - Lindsay Fox
Even as someone confident in public speaking, I used to dread networking. I’d be at a conference, and it would get to lunch time, and I’d slink off to get my plate of finger food, and find a corner away from the crowd.
I felt more exposed trying to edge my way into a group of business people, with a plate of sandwiches and chicken goujons, than I did doing stand-up comedy in front of a baying bunch of drunks, in a back-street pub in the east end of London.
I think I hated the forced artificiality of it all… (the conference, not the pub), and back then I was more at the mercy of imposter syndrome, which made me feel like people wouldn’t be interested in what I had to say… (that can become a self-fulfilling prophesy) …and there’s nothing more crushing than talking to someone who is just scanning the room to see if there’s someone higher status that they can dump you for. Not to mention the fact that a lot of the women had opted for a couple of carrot sticks and a few branches of lettuce, and I felt judged for every morsel entering my chops!
But that was old style networking… it was a time of power suits, pin stripes and Ponzi schemes. I’d like to think things have changed today, and I think mostly they have, although… I was at a networking event recently, (and I have to admit I heard this second-hand), and apparently, a young woman barged into the middle of a conversation, said “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m doing this, [thrusts flyer into everyone’s hand], are you interested in coming?” You’ve got to admire her chutzpah, even though her reception was luke-warm by all accounts.
There are some networking organisations that are very regimented, where the threat of getting thrown out for a lack of referrals hangs over your head like a secret meeting with a Russian lawyer…and I would still try and avoid those, but there’s one I absolutely love to go to. The people are lovely, it’s fun, engaging, and supportive, sure the regimentation isn’t there, but the referrals are just as many, (and there are definitely more people attending this one, that would tick the ‘know’, ‘like’ and ‘trust’ boxes, making me feel comfortable to recommend them to someone I know).
These days, I like networking, and I think it’s because I recognised it as something I needed to work on (and still do). So, over the years, I’ve researched the topic, studied the best networkers, practiced, and even written a book on creating elevator pitches, and I wanted to share some of the tips that have worked for me.
1) Make the primary goal building relationships
Apparently, we’re only five relationships away from someone who can change our lives, BUT, that only works if we’re someone people want to stay in contact with! Don’t sacrifice the potential for long term mutually beneficial relationships, by making the initial interaction all about selling your product or service. People relate best when they can find some common ground, so I like to ask questions to try and tease out a shared experience or problem.
2) Be like Bill Clinton
I haven’t met Bill Clinton, but I’ve heard time and again that he oozes gravitas, (insert your own Bill and Monica joke here) … but really, people say that when he meets you, he is completely focussed on you, even if it’s only for 30 seconds (there’s another set up for you…), and it makes the other person feel special. So, the takeaway here is that when you meet someone, be completely present with them. Listen and connect.
3) Set a target number of people to talk to.
If you’re competitive like me, you might find it useful to aim for a number of people to talk to. I find it makes me more determined and persistent, and gives me a little victory to celebrate after.
4) Have open questions in your back pocket
Before you attend a networking event, take a few minutes to think about the event you’re going to, who might be there, and what interests they might have. You can also have some questions ready to ask them, but perhaps make them a little different to the usual… “What do you do?” …here’s some suggestions, that allow you to get a bit of a deeper insight into what they do, and may open up some opportunities for you to add value to them:
What’s really crucial to your business success at the moment?
What impact does it have?
What have you been doing to get what you need?
How is that working for you?
5) Get your body and mind congruent
If you want to have a positive, open conversation with people you’re just meeting, or you don’t know very well, make sure your body and face support what’s coming out of your mouth. If you’re nervously moving from foot to foot, fiddling with an accessory, and looking anywhere but in their eyes, then you’re not going to appear confident… if you’re standing there frowning, with your arms crossed, whilst asking ‘friendly’, ‘open’ questions, the other person is NOT going to feel comfortable.
Try to stand still, with your weight balanced evenly, your shoulders back, and have a smile on your face, or even better still, try to mirror something the other person is doing, as this will help to build rapport.
6) Have a good shake
Is it nature or nurture… who cares?! If you’ve got a handshake that’s as weak as the combined box office appeal of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK, then you’ve got some work to do. I’ve not met a person yet that enjoys physical contact with a limp hand. On the other side of the coin, don’t try and make the handshake a power play. It’s simple…reach in, give a firm squeeze and withdraw… (uhh hmm), why not have a practice with a friend or partner.
7) Add value
As you’re listening to the person, try and find some way of adding value to them. If they have a problem and you know the answer share it. If they are interested in fly fishing, and you know a good book by J R Hartley, then recommend it, or if you know someone else that it might be useful for them to connect with, then offer to introduce them. Be creative, and useful.
8) Have an attention grabbing customer focussed 30 second pitch
Eventually, someone will ask you what you do, and please be ready with a well-prepared answer. You need to say what your product or service is and how it solves your customer/client pain. You briefly cover why you’re different to the competition, and why you do what you do. Then you ask another, related and open question to continue the conversation.
If you don’t have an elevator pitch, or don’t have one that you’re confident with, then you can get a step by step guide to writing your elevator pitch, along with other resources in episode three of my podcast ‘The Speaking Club’ here.
9) Think Abundantly
There are some networking groups that only let you have one of each trade or profession. I can understand why, but in today’s world of niche offerings, I don’t think this is necessary. Plus, it encourages a scarcity mind-set, which leads to desperation, and the sort of conversation crashing and leaflet thrusting I mentioned earlier.
Go to these events confident, that even if there is another financial consultant, plumber or mind-set coach, there is enough business for all of you. (But, if you haven’t found a niche for your services or product, then I would suggest you get really specific about who your services are for, and how you uniquely meet their needs, as this will make it tougher for others to compete with you anyway!)
10) Follow up
At the very minimum following the event, connect on one of the social media platforms with the person you just met. If you can email them with a value offering that’s great too, or you could arrange a skype call, or a meetup in person. But do follow up!
If you go to a networking event with the right mind-set, attitude and goals, having done a modicum of prep, then you too can start to build the long-term connections and relationships that will help you achieve success.