Networking. What an emotional word! What does it mean anyway? We hear so much about it as we are bombarded daily with invitations to events that promise us “great networking.” According to the dictionary, networking is defined as, “Interacting with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career.
It sounds straightforward – and perhaps even easy. So why do so many people resist it? Why do palms sweat at the thought of going into a networking situation?
The simple explanation is that most of us do not like to be put in an uncomfortable position where we have to meet people we don’t know and then, to make matters worse, to be expected to engage in a conversation with them! Every time we attend a networking event, it always seems as if everyone in the room knows each other, except for us. It is awkward to stand alone, or worse to try to strike up a conversation when you don’t really know what to say.
Before you get started, it is important to remember what networking really is (or what it is not). Networking at its best and most effective is not an exchange of information. Rather, it is the first step in building a meaningful connection with someone who can add value for you as you find ways to add value in return. Attending an event and collecting a stack of business cards is not particularly useful to anyone. But, on the other hand, meeting someone of interest while attending an event and exchanging contact information with the intent to schedule a second meeting soon after is useful.
Here are a few tips that can help overcome some common networking challenges:
- Attend events that are likely to attract your target market; do not waste your time if it is clear that the other guests will not likely fit the profile in your strategic business plan.
- Invite a business colleague, friend or client to join you at an event. It is much more pleasant to attend with someone you know who will make the first few conversations seem less stilted as you get into the flow. The only caveat is that you cannot stand and talk just to each other throughout the event! The goal is to divide and conquer the room together – not to isolate yourselves.
- Remember that everyone may not really know each other – even though it seems as if they do. Assume they have all just met and introduce yourself with confidence; remember that you are not interrupting – you are adding value.
- When you have the chance to speak with someone, especially in a one-on-one situation at an event, pose some questions that can help break the ice. Something as simple as, “This is my first time here. Have you ever been to any events from this organization before?” Ask if he/she is finding the experience helpful. As you meet people, you can ask what they do – or if the name of their company or organization is unfamiliar to you, ask about it. Find out where they are located. After a few minutes of some thoughtful questions and careful listening, you will most likely find you have something in common. Once that happens, the conversation takes on a life of its own. And all you had to do was ‘ask.’
- Consider that everyone in the room is there for the exact same reason you are – to meet new people and to identify good contacts who will be worth the investment of additional time.
- Interestingly, the most important part of the networking experience doesn’t even happen at the event itself. The return on investment begins afterward. If a stack of business cards is going to sit on your desk and then maybe move to a drawer, or if you are really energetic, are added to your Outlook contacts, then the entire experience is pretty much negligible. Very little benefit comes without the hard work and patience of follow up.
- Perhaps you offered to forward some information that was of interest, or to make an introduction to a third person who might also prove to be a good connection, or maybe you have agreed to forward an invitation to another event because you think it would be relevant. No matter what you agreed to do, make good on your promises – ASAP.
A lasting relationship that can reap benefits for both parties is one that is founded on trust, mutual respect, common interests and a genuine liking for each other. This takes time and it is hard work. I suggest you have the patience to cultivate a connection, nurturing it as it grows into a sustainable relationship. It will be well worth your effort.