“Network continually,” advises author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy. “Eighty-five per cent of all jobs are filled through contacts and personal references.”
Networking is essential not only to help promote your business, but to build your personal brand and develop your list of professional contacts. Networking provides a valuable opportunity to brainstorm and discuss issues that relate to your job and to your business, and to connect and strengthen relationships with key stakeholders within your industry.
However, many people are not ‘natural’ networkers and recoil in horror when the word ‘networking’ is mentioned. For those who are not naturally confident, attending a networking event can be a source of anxiety. But there are some tricks to the trade – we all need to network, and to view it as a positive way to build your personal marketing skills.
So, what are the rules of effective networking?
1. Change your perspective
If you’re going to a networking event purely to gain referrals or seek out new customers or business opportunities, you might be disappointed. Instead, view your attendance as an opportunity to add value to people you meet, and to learn from others’ perspectives. Any business prospects that come out of it are a bonus.
2. What is your personal or your business’s unique value proposition (UVP)?
This isn’t just marketing spiel – what are you bringing to the table? Devise a short summary about you and your line of work to capture people’s attention, and practice it in advance. “Never answer the question ‘What do you do?’ with a job title and a company,” advises author and success coach Patricia Fripp, “but rather something interesting that guarantees the answer, ‘how do you do that?’”
3. Be prepared
Do your research. What sort of event is it? What audience is it likely to attract? What do you hope to gain from attending this event? Set yourself a small goal, for example, introducing yourself to a particular attendee or speaker.
4. Look the part
It’s may be a cliché but first impressions really do last. Is your image professional, and business-like? Does it suit the environment of the event? Are you stocked up on business cards and is your business card holder professional, so you don’t have to fumble through your folder or handbag to find one?
5. Check your body language
What non-verbal messages are you sending out to people? Check your posture. Try to avoid hunched shoulders, and crossed arms or legs. Are you smiling? “It is well documented that people respond to the ‘physical’ state of the communicator before any other signal is registered,” says communications trainer Barbara Warren of Dramatic Difference Training. “Our physical presence transcends the clothes we wear or how we look. The body tells a story and we should ensure at all times that it is telling the story we want told. To be prepared physically, ‘shimmy and shake’ out – become energised by being active. You can create a physical warm-up simply by doing a spine roll, rotating your shoulders and arms and moving your legs.”
6. Jump in the deep end
Attending a networking event on your own? This can be daunting. However, most people are generally welcoming of other people who join their conversation. Wait for a break in the conversation, politely introduce yourself and be attentive to the group conversation. Don’t be afraid to admit vulnerability and be open that you don’t know anyone, but are keen to meet people. Have some questions in your head prepared beforehand should there be any awkward pauses in conversation. But let it go if there are – it’s only natural!
7. Listen and be interested
Networking isn’t solely about promoting you and your business; it’s a two-way street with opportunity to connect. Ask questions about the people you meet; be genuinely interested in their responses. Be courteous, and treat others how you would like to be treated. Retain eye contact – if you’re distracted and not focused, this won’t send out positive signals to the communicator. Once the discussion reaches a natural conclusion, find an appropriate way to exit the conversation so you can continue meeting other people. For example, ‘It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet you, and I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, but I need to meet a colleague of mine now’. If you feel you have developed a connection or a mutual interest with that person, offer them your business card. Handing your card out to anyone you speak with could undermine your perceived value – so be choosy who you share them with.
8. Analyse your performance
What did you do well? What could you have done better? Write down areas for improvement and make it a goal to do something differently at your next networking event. “Rehearsal and repetition of positive communication practice is indispensable,” says Warren.
9. Seek inspiration
Warren advises people who are seeking to brush up on their communication skills to read Speak Like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln by James C Humes or You are the Message by Roger Ailes (this is a classic). “These are two of my favourite books on public speaking,” she says.
10. Follow up with people
If you made a connection with someone and exchanged business cards, send them an email the next day. Let them know you enjoyed meeting them, and would like to stay in touch.
Finally, if you’re prone to letting the networking demons cause stress, remember the words of the late US business guru Steven R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “Effective people are not problem-minded; they’re opportunity-minded. They feed opportunities and starve problems.”