Do you cringe when you hear the word ‘networking’? Some consider it a dirty word that people use to better their own business and leverage relationships to improve their bottom line. Well, the truth is, that’s ultimately what it is – but that doesn’t necessarily mean exploiting people with two-faced schmoozing. If you have nightmares about walking into a room full of strangers, try these tips for establishing mutually beneficial relationships based on real, genuine encounters.
1. Dress to impress
They say first impressions last and, whether we like it or not, people make assumptions based on appearance. Make sure you look sharp and your attire is suitable for the location, climate and formality of the occasion. Don’t forget to wear your smile!
If you look approachable you’re more likely to be invited into a circle, so wipe the fear off your face, which can often be mistaken for indifference or boredom.
Speaking to complete strangers can be jarring. You don’t know anything about them, so how can you possibly strike up a conversation?
There are a few generic but necessary questions to ask that will get the conversation flowing, so write down 3 or 4 you can default to for easing into first-time encounters.
Ask yourself what you want to achieve from the networking event, and practice your own personal pitch: a concise 1-minute self-introduction you can relay with confidence about who you are and what you do.
Nobody wants to shake a limp hand. Show confidence, grip proportionately, don’t hang on for too long and remember to use eye contact. Eye contact inspires trust and shows people you are interested when they are talking.
Remembering names is also paramount. Listen when people introduce themselves and aim to say their name three times in the first 30 seconds of meeting them. It might sound ridiculous to you, but it’s subconsciously building rapport with them.
4. Body language
Are you standing with your arms crossed, leaning on the counter or holding up the wall? Stand tall, avoid fidgeting and move around the space. If you find yourself alone at any point, seek out someone else who is by themselves and introduce yourself. Chances are they’re more nervous than you and would really appreciate the company.
5. Two ears, one mouth
Generally, people aren’t shy about talking about themselves, so allow them their five minutes of fame. Ask questions and make mental notes of the answers.
Leverage the answers to ask more questions, and keep the game going until they direct the conversation at you. If you find yourself awkwardly talking about the weather, it may be time to excuse yourself and visit the bathroom. You are not going to click with every person you meet.
6. Stand out
You want your business card to reflect your personality and business values. If you’re still struggling through the 2000 DIY design business cards you ordered on a daily deal website for $50 a few years ago, it’s time for an upgrade.
Your card should communicate quality and professionalism; a flimsy, thin and washed out budget card is not how you want to be remembered.
7. Keep your two cents worth
Don’t force your business card on people before even shaking their hand. This transparent introduction reeks of self-importance and tells people you’re only interested in making personal gains.
Even if you are, there are more subtle and considerate ways around this. Don’t give too much advice unless it’s explicitly requested, and try to avoid talking about divisive topics such as religion, money or politics.
8. Follow up
Before the week is out – ideally within 48 hours – collate the business cards you received and write personalised emails or LinkedIn requests to each person expressing how nice it was to meet them.
Try to make reference to something they spoke about when you met to reinforce the fact you were paying attention and were genuinely interested. You can go above and beyond by sending a link to some research or a news article you’ve found which is particularly relevant to their field of work.
9. Volunteer or organise
A great way to meet people in a less formal environment than a networking night is to attend or volunteer at an industry events. As an official volunteer you will have people approaching you for information and have the opportunity to make a range of connections in a more relaxed exchange.
Alternatively, organise your own networking event and invite each of your friends to bring a guest. This way you already know 50% of attendees and have a direct introduction to the rest.
10. Bring a friend
If you’re an introvert and need a little help coming out of your shell, ask a more outgoing friend to accompany you to the event. It doesn’t need to be someone in your industry or business; just a friend who can confidently work the room, is good at listening and enjoys meeting new people.
Once you’ve survived your first networking event with the support of your friend, push yourself to go it alone next time – you might surprise yourself!
Networking, like anything worthwhile, takes practice and persistence. For some people, it’s like going for a run on a cold winter morning. You don’t really want to do it, but you never regret it, and the endorphin rush you feel at the end from stepping outside your comfort zone – and actually surviving – makes it all worthwhile.