I have been "teaching" people how to network for many, many years. It was a weird concept for me initially - I was a good networker, but breaking down what I did was difficult. Can something that comes naturally to some be taught to others? The answer is...of course! But it just means some of us will have to try a little harder to master it than others.
It also felt a little "dirty", the whole "networking" thing, until I distilled it down to what I REALLY think good networking is about:
Look for a chance to GIVE before you RECEIVE ... thereby earning the right to ask a favour (at some point in the future).
Giving before receiving isn't as hard as it sounds - it can be small things - from talking to the shy person at an event, to giving a compliment, sharing information you come across, passing on a lead, or even suggesting a great book/article/blog.
So once you approach networking with this mindset, it feels a lot more natural. If you go in desperately 'wanting', you'll put people off - desperation and need is as large a put-off as a blatant sales pitch.
Once you get to a networking event though, what should you actually do? And almost as importantly, what shouldn't you do?
- Get there a little early-and stay right to the end. Introduce yourself to the host if you can. And if you have the opportunity, explain why you're there. They can often point you in the right direction.
- Go with a plan. How many people are you going to try to speak to? One or several? Are you just going to try and meet the presenter perhaps? Or the event organiser? Are you going to see how others network? Would you like to connect with potential collaborators? (Note: In a half hour time allocation for networking, you would only expect to speak PROPERLY to 2-3 people.)
- Listen for commonality in conversations, and give some information about yourself when you speak. Networking, like any social interaction, is about finding some common ground to help drive the conversation or connection. Networking events are not the time to be quiet or hold back! Similarly, they are not the time to only talk about yourself. Ask a LOT of questions and you'll find networking a lot easier, and more revealing.
- Have business cards - and a pen handy. The pen is to write on the cards you receive, to remind yourself of how you met them or any relevant follow up. The business cards are to hand out IF you want to communicate with the person again. Don't hand them out unless you're prepared to be contacted.
- Don't hide in a corner, or surf Facebook, or text. Stand somewhere central, be open, catch people's eyes. At business events people are there to speak, there to connect. Make it easy for them to connect with you.
- Don't only speak about work. Unless you're a super -engaged, super-excited entrepreneur, most people's key passion isn't their work. They much prefer to speak about their weekends, hobbies, travel, families, what they really want to do for work, etc. If you're looking for faster connections, don't open with "what do you do?". Instead ask what they're hoping to get out of the event or what they did/plan to do on the weekend. You can get to the work part eventually, but it's not the ideal conversation starter.
- Don't come unprepared to describe what you do if someone asks, or it does come up. You should have ready a means to explain your business/job in 2-3 sentences, without a bunch of jargon. Most people, on the spot, are AWFUL at explaining what they do. They give you very little - for example, a title only - or waffle on and yet still leaves you wondering what they do / what's special about what they do and how you can possibly say anything interesting about it.
- Don't forget to follow up. If you've taken a card, or have a name, send a quick follow up email, or a LinkedIn connection request. The whole point of networking is that it's a LONG TERM proposition.
Now...go forth and network!
PS. For the keen eyes, I know it's not Tuesday. But I wanted to get this published for a friend that's off to her first networking event tonight!