Now that things are going ‘back to normal’ and we’re getting used to living with COVID, events and workshops are happening again. People are slowly going back to gatherings, signing up for conferences, and girding themselves for the inevitable awfulness of networking.
While you’re dusting off your hustle pants and ordering some new business cards, let’s take a moment to limber up and prepare for an effective approach to meeting new and interesting people.
Let’s start with the purpose of networking, as many people get networking and pitching mixed up. Networking is not about showing off your abundant talents and impressing everyone with your magnificent big ideas. Please. Networking is a marketing activity designed to help you meet interesting strangers, build your credibility, learn from others, and get your name out and about. Don’t expect to find a client every time you hit the bar — focus instead on having fun, chatting in a relaxed way, and developing a good reputation.
Research is key. If you’re heading out of your comfort zone, do as much homework as you can before the event to find out who will be there and how the event is structured. Is it a casual drinkies affair or a more formalised process? Is it ‘speed networking’ or more relaxed? What kinds of people are likely to show up? The more information you have beforehand, the more comfortable you’ll feel. If networking is an alarming proposition, try attending a training event or conference as a way of meeting new people. You’ll all be in the same position as each other, and having something in common is an excellent way of starting a conversation.
Prepare. Think about what you’re going to say, how you will introduce yourself, and practice your answer to the dreaded “what do you do?” question. Remember, you don’t have to explain absolutely everything about yourself. Your introduction is just a trigger point for the next part of the conversation. Take this time to get your business cards ready and decide how you will approach the handshake in these germ-phobic times.
Arrive early to the event. It may seem counterintuitive, but arriving early is a good strategy if you’re nervous or shy. If you arrive early, you’ll only have to meet a few people and you’ll have a good excuse to start a conversation. The later you arrive, the more likely you are to be overwhelmed by a large group of people. You’ll also get a chance to meet the most important people at the event — the organisers. It’s their job to ensure that you have a meaningful time, so introduce yourself if you can and explain that you don’t know anyone — they will usually be happy to help you out. It’s literally their job.
Set some sort of measurement system for the event. This will allow you to know whether or not it’s “working”. Set yourself a time limit for how long you’ll stay or make a goal of meeting X number of new people or gathering X numbers of business cards. It will help you to figure out whether or not a repeat visit to the event is worthwhile in the future — and when it’s time to leave!
Make the most of the follow-up. The networking activity is simply a way to meet interesting strangers — the real work happens afterwards. It’s in the follow-up that you can arrange a time to meet anyone you connected with, people who might want to hear your sexy pitch or learn more about what you do. If you’ve received a card, a DM or an enthusiastic response to your presence, email that person and/or connect with them on LinkedIn. Be brave and suggest a second meeting over a coffee or Zoom, to continue the chat. You’ll get much more traction from this approach than from banging on about yourself like a narcissistic bore (not surprisingly).
Here are our final three golden rules for networking events:
Rule Number 1: Be Interested, Not Interesting
Networking events are not the right place to pitch, audition or hog the limelight. Networking is simply about meeting interesting strangers and making potential connections. The best way to do that is to listen, be interested in the other person, and hope that they will be interested in you too.
Rule Number 2: Disavow Defensiveness
Even if you meet hideous people or objectionable wankers, don’t be defensive. Defensiveness is the enemy of any kind of communication. Be open, friendly and empathetic, even if you’re not receiving the same in response. If someone is awful, politely excuse yourself and walk away when you can. Rise above their bad behaviour and you’ll feel better than if you engaged in their bollocks.
Rule Number 3: WIIFT?
It’s important to enter any networking situation with your mind squarely located in “WIIFT”, or the “What’s In It For Them?” attitude of everyone else there. Rather than pushing your own agenda, think about how you might be able to help the people you meet and build relationships. You’ll probably feel more comfortable doing that anyway, and you’ll be remembered for being friendly, charming and helpful. There is no better way to leave a good impression!