Networking is an activity that has been going on for probably as long as businesses have existed, if not longer. Many partners in major firms or successful directors in companies have managed to forge a career around doing it successfully. For many people, in the early stages of their career, or those who are naturally more shy or introverted the mere idea of attending an event to meet new people sounds like one of the worst things they can imagine.
It is perfectly natural to be apprehensive or even fearful of attending these events, whether an introvert or indeed an extrovert and sometimes even the most proficient of networkers would rather be sat at home watching their favourite TV programme. A lot of this feeling can be down to how the day at work has gone, after all however great your job and however much you enjoy it, you’ll still have off days. However, much like a trip to the gym or run you need to do, skipping the event you meant to attend becomes a habit, the wrong kind of habit, so instead build the right habits and attend the event however you are feeling.
While social selling or networking definitely has a viable place in the current business world (when it is permitted again), it still does pay to network the old-fashioned way.
Therefore, the next question is, what tips can I get to help me overcome my networking apprehensions? Hopefully, the 10 simple tips or reminders below will help you answer that question.
10 tips to help you start networking professionally.
1. Research events and pick the ones right for you.
If you’re looking to build contacts in a certain sector or industry, then use google and ask colleagues/peers to find out which are the best ones for you to attend. If there’s a series of events, then make sure you attend them all (or at least most of them). As an example, years ago I worked with a very introverted accountant who was struggling to win new clients. One thing he agreed to do was to regularly attend the same industry networking event. After about 9 months he started to get people approaching him when they needed some accountancy help, as they assumed he was the go to person in that sector.
2. Prepare ahead.
Read what’s going on in the industry or sector relevant to the networking event you are attending and what the current trends are. If the event has speakers, then look up the details of those speakers and read any articles they may have published around the topics they will be talking about. Understanding these will help ally your fears as you’ll feel more in control due to the preparation you have made, and it will help you to have a broader and more interesting conversation with the people you meet.
3. Have an idea of who you might want to meet.
If you know the types of people you want to meet and what they do, that will really help in your preparation. If there’s an attendee list you can see ahead of time then by all means have a look at that. Alternatively, have a clear idea in your mind of the types of people (job role, company etc) that you’d ideally like to start to build some rapport with.
4. Don’t set a target number of people you need to meet.
Some people swear by this, but one thing a lifetime in sales and business development has taught me is that sales is 100% not a numbers game. Personally, I think it is ridiculous to say you’re going to swap cards with, say, 10 people at a networking event. This is networking, it isn’t speed dating. I’ve been on the receiving end of this approach and clearly, I wasn’t the intended audience so I had a business card quickly shoved in my hand before my speed-networker moved on to the next person in the room. One good meaningful conversation is far better than 10 pointless ones. I once went to a networking event and only spoke to one person who was hanging around the side-lines. He turned out to be the CEO of a major property investment group, we built some good rapport and lots of business followed.
5. Arrive at the networking event early or at least on time.
People make impressions based on your appearance and time-keeping. We all like to work with people we can rely on, and being a person who arrives in good time is all part of actively demonstrating your reliability. It’s simple but effective.
6. Have your LinkedIn profile and app ready to use
People do indeed still swap business cards. However, many will get their phones out and connect with people they meet online. It’s efficient and helps you instantly stay in touch after the networking event. There’s a lot you can do to use LinkedIn at larger conference events ahead of the event starting and this article provides some excellent ideas on that.
However, don’t stay on your phone too long, the more you stare at your screen the less approachable you are. I’ve attended many events only to see a veritable sea of people sitting in corners and standing up, eyes glued to their smartphones. Thus, making them very unapproachable. Make sure at the very least your phone is on silent (non-vibrate ideally) as any notification will break your concentration.
7. Avoid overtly selling or pitching.
Networking is purely about building rapport so that the other person has a desire to meet with you again. Therefore, avoid giving someone your 30-second elevator pitch. You may have practised it got it down to a fine art but have you noticed the other person’s eyes glaze over when you blurt it out. Yes, share what you do, but then get back into conversation mode asap. Ask lots of questions and use this as a time to be curious and get to understand the other person better. From these questions, you’ll find that synergies between the two of you happen much more naturally.
8. Leave a conversation without saying you’re off to the toilet!
After all, you can only go to the toilet so many times in one evening! It is best not to be rude, instead say something like “I’ve really enjoyed our chat, why don’t we go and talk to the group over there and find out what they think?” After all, they are there to build their networks too, so if you can facilitate that, they’ll appreciate it and you’ll be free to have other conversations. It’s much more polite and professional this way.
9. Remembering people and the details of what they do.
Which after a talk and perhaps a couple of drinks at the end of a long day, suddenly seems not a simple task but more of a herculean one. So the trick is not to put it off, but get the details down whatever way that works best for you early. Here are some simple tips that I’ve seen many people in professional services employ successfully:
a. Write notes on the business cards you receive
b. Write notes on the way home / outside on your phone
c. Send yourself an e-mail
d. Call your office phone and leave yourself a voicemail.
10. Follow up on your networking that day or the next morning.
Don’t put this off. If you don’t follow up then you’ve basically wasted all the networking you have done. Block out 15-30 mins in your diary that day, at an appropriate time to do your follow-ups. When following up send an email expressing how you enjoyed your conversation and meeting them, give maybe a bullet point summary of what you discussed and if appropriate suggest a coffee or more formal meeting as the next stage. It’s also a really good idea to send an invite to connect on LinkedIn as well. The advantage of this is an email addresses changes if a person leaves an organisation, however, if you’re connected on LinkedIn, you’ll be able to contact them via LinkedIn, even if they change jobs.
The 10 basics of networking effectively – conclusion
The 10 steps above should help give you a simple structure and some confidence to go out and network. One of the best bits of advice is that like any new skill you are learning or a skill you are seeking to improve, the more you practice, the better you will get. So do as much networking as possible.