5 Ways To Become A Networking Pro
Content first published for The Merit Club
The word "networking" has always made me cringe. There's something about its connotations with forced interactions that seems unnatural and insincere, let alone daunting. In my mind, my visions of "networking" had always centred on turning up to an event alone and nervy, introducing yourself to as many people as possible in forced surroundings, without ever quite knowing what you're doing, who to approach, and whether you're saying the wrong thing. The dragons den of networking pros, with expectation and judgement.
However, my perspective on "networking" soon changed once I had got over that one little word. It's easy to forget that often you will be networking without even realising it as you go about your life and daily jobs. Networking events don't have to be as daunting as they may seem, either. Meetings, be them in the work place with new people or at social engagements, always provide an underlying opportunity to network. If you don't always regard networking as a sales pitch and a solely business-to-business interaction with immediate gain, you can gain a sense of how wide, profitable and supportive your professional circle can be. A simple shift in energy, will soon make you a networking pro.
If you're in need of extra confidence, make sure you are as prepared as you can possibly be, so that whenever a networking opportunity presents itself you're not flummoxed and looking for an escape, kicking yourself for missing out. Becoming a networking pro means knowing yourself, your skills, and your strengths, as well as your goals and where you want to take your career or your business. If you're not clear about your objectives with yourself, it's far harder to spot an opportunity, let alone convince someone that they will be able to give you a helping hand.
If you're worried about seeming too keen by sending an email to a handy contact, take confidence from the fact people are far more likely to feel flattered that you have reached out to them rather than be offended. Likewise, if you're at an event, spur yourself on to make an introduction, trusting that the person you have approached will no doubt be looking to do the same and will be grateful for the conversation-starter.
To set yourself up, a really helpful and easy thing to do is order yourself some business cards. Don't be afraid to be pro-active and take your career and yourself seriously. It's a little thing, but having business cards with you serve as encouraging reminders that you are an individual with skills and talents who will be just as useful to someone as they are to you. The cards don't have to be uber-fancy, or even connected to your specific job at the time. Make them personal with your name and email address and they're good to go.
When you meet with people, be this in a meeting or at a networking event, there's so much to be said for being genuine. Why risk tripping yourself up. Networking is a two-way street and people don't want to feel as though they are being taken for granted. If you're pitching an idea to someone, a useful way in is to offer up a skill or service of your own that will help them. Find common ground and bring in your own personal experiences that relate to them and their thinking. Really focus on that person and tailor what you're talking about to them, directing your ideas specifically to their interests and talents. It's important to build a connection that is both professional and personal, which shows a genuine interest rather than just fitting the networking stereotype of take, take, take. If you're a closed book, it's far more difficult to nurture a connection that's going to be profitable and open up ideas and possibilities.
An equally important thing to note is never to be snobbish! You will only limit yourself. You never know where a conversation may lead, and who someone may be able to introduce you too. Whoever you are talking to, be just as enthusiastic and excited. Opportunities and connections really are everywhere.
In line with being genuine, is being generous. A key ingredient to becoming a networking pro is to be generous with both your time and your energy. If you have a proposal for somebody, find a way to make them feel as if they are benefiting too. People are busy just like you, and people will be quick to find excuses if they don't feel their efforts are being appreciated and reciprocated. Find that extra time to make introductions or suggestions, going out of your way to help them too if you can. Make sure you have the time to give back to them.
Assessing just who are your most valuable connections now and again can also be very helpful. You don't want people to feel as though they have been forgotten - you never know when you may need to reach out to them again. With this in mind, be sure to keep in touch with everyone in your professional circle when you can. Follow up after your meetings, and don't be afraid to check in with them now and again to find out how everything is progressing for them too. Far better to focus on fewer contacts and foster mutually beneficially connections, than spread yourself too thin and not have any genuine contacts who you can rely on.
If you're at a networking event, make the most of it and constantly be aware of your goals for the occasion. More specifically, if you've been in a conversation that has proved valuable but has reached it's end, don't be afraid to leave it if you need to. There are polite ways to detach yourself without causing any offence. This is where those nifty business cards come in useful. Reiterate how great it has been talking to them, how you just need to meet a few other people before you leave, and express how much you would like to stay in touch, asking whether they would like your business card so you can arrange to meet again.
One of the biggest fears of networking? Awkward silences. That's why it is crucial to have some questions in the bank just in case. We've thought of some simple questions you can ask to get the conversation rolling without that stilted so what do you do conversation. You've commented on the pouring rain on your way there... where do you go next?
“Have you been to a networking event like this before?”
“Are any of your colleagues here too?”
“How did you hear about this event?”
“Have you had far to travel to get here?”
“Have you come straight from work? ... where abouts is that?”
“Is work busy for you at the moment?”
“Are you working on any exciting projects at the moment?”
“Do you live in London? … have you always lived here?”
“Have you been on any exciting trips recently?”
“Have you visited anywhere interesting recently?”
It might seem alien at first, but networking really doesn’t have to be something scary and awkward. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Expand and keep reinforcing your circle and see how many more opportunities will come your way.