Does the word ‘networking’ fill you with a sense of dread?
Maybe the words ‘awkward,’ ‘stressful,’ and ‘uncomfortable’ also spring to mind.
Whether it’s a conference, exhibition, or fair, networking can be a daunting experience. When you get there, you’re hit with a wave of people looking to find someone to talk to, you then find yourself stumbling over your words when someone asks ‘What do you do?’, and spend the rest of the time either making small talk or trying to find an early exit.
Does this sound familiar?
Well, there’s good news: Despite what you may have been told, networking isn’t just for outgoing extroverts who find it easy to strike up a conversation. Networking is a skill that can be learned. It is all about stepping outside your comfort zone, creating relationships and connections, and this can be learned by anyone – whether you see yourself as an introvert, extrovert or somewhere in the middle.
With the right preparation and tools, you can become a networking pro.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Before you start diving into the world of networking, you need to consider what the right event for you is. Networking events come in all shapes and sizes. It’s important that you find an event that works for you and that you can get the most out of. My advice to do this would be to start small. You don’t need to attend every major event or speak to everyone who attends. Be selective. You could even start by simply messaging a relevant contact on LinkedIn to see if they’d like to meet up for coffee. Challenge yourself to message two people a week online and try and meet up with at least one of them a week and go from there!
Preparation is key
I’m sure you’ve all heard the quote ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’? It really is true when talking about networking. Research and planning will make you feel so much more confident and comfortable approaching people if you already have an idea of what you’re going to say.
There are a few ways you can do this:
- Know what it is you do – write out a clear and succinct ‘elevator pitch’. A few sentences max including what you do and what you can offer, and make sure you practice it before you go. You don’t need to learn this off by heart, but having an idea about what you’re going to say will help you with nerves
- Try and find out who’s going to the event – if there’s someone you’d really like to connect with then you will be more prepared if you know they’re attending
- Have a few conversation starters ready to go – ask people about themselves
- Take plenty of business cards and even consider creating a networking sheet that you can leave behind reminding people about what you do
- Write down your goals for the event. You can reflect on this afterwards and see where you can improve next time
- Take a notebook/phone/tablet/notebook/anything to take notes on. You can then make notes during the event. This gives you small breaks to have a breather and will help you with follow-ups.
Introduce yourself properly
By preparing beforehand, you’ll hopefully be going into the event with a great introduction. Body language is important. Make sure you make eye contact, smile, and look approachable. Even if you don’t feel confident on the inside, your smile will make you appear confident on the outside. Remember to listen so that you remember the person’s name (I think everyone has experienced this at some point). Repeat the name a couple of times at the start of the conversation so that you don’t forget it. There’s nothing worse than getting a name wrong or completely forgetting it.
Active listening is a real skill and unfortunately something many of us lack. It requires the listener to fully concentrate on the words a person is speaking, and then understanding, responding and remembering what has been said. Make sure you are actively listening throughout so you don’t miss anything important and to show you are clearly interested in what the person is saying. Another great tip is to let the other person speak first. You can then respond and ask questions. This will make the first person to speak much more relaxed when it comes to you introducing yourself. It’s more likely they’ll then remember what you’re saying as they won’t be worrying so much about their pitch.
Read the room
Look out for people whose body language looks open and inclusive, rather than people in closed off circles. Also, there might be other people who are dreading the event, so anyone who’s standing on their own make sure to approach them – you could be the friendly face they need!
Review and follow-up
Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to follow-up with anyone that you meet and would like to continue speaking to in a timely manner. You can use the notes you made during your breaks, personalise each email, and reference what you spoke about. Make sure that if you connect on LinkedIn, that you send a personalised message too, otherwise they probably won’t connect with you. This shows great attention to detail and again highlights your excellent listening skills.
Networking is a fantastic skill to have and whether you own your own business or work for a company, you’ll find it useful to have wherever you go. Relax and try to enjoy. Remember, everyone is in the same boat!
Have you managed to step outside your comfort zone when it comes to networking? Share your tips and tools below.