Top 10 tips for making the most of networking opportunities.

Networking is a core skill for anyone looking to succeed in business. It can be invaluable for creating new opportunities, building contacts and increasing the visibility of both your business and your personal profile.

Despite this, many of us fear walking into a room of strangers.

We worry we won’t know what to say; we’re forced to face our own perceived inadequacies. If we’ve come with a business agenda, we fear we’ll come across as pushy or manipulative as soon as someone finds us out. And frankly, maintaining conversation with people you don’t know in a forced situation can be draining.

It’s no wonder many of us will inevitably slide into a corner, clutching a warm glass of cheap wine and picking at the hors d’oeuvres while wondering how soon it can be deemed socially acceptable to sneak back home and catch up on missed episodes of House of Cards.

The good news is, if you’re nervous about networking – you are not alone. Like any skill, it can take practice; but here we’ve gathered some simple, basic tips to set you on the way to working that room like a pro.

Making the most of networking

Before we dive in, let’s take a second and remember what networking actually is.

The focus here is on engaging for mutual assistance or support: networking involves exchange. It’s a two-way thing.

Before going into any networking environment, hold onto that idea. Networking, the Business Directory argues, is based on the question, “how can I help?” – not, “What can I get?”.

  1. Do your homework

Thanks to the power of the internet and social media, networking now begins before you even step into the room. Take the time to do some groundwork.

Research the event and request an attendee list if available. What sort of businesses are attending? Is there a particular theme to the event? If you know individuals who will be attending, take the time to look them up and find out more about what they’re up to and what they’re talking about online. If conversation stalls, you have something to full back on.

It’s worth remembering that while you’re stalking fellow attendees, others will likely be doing the same to you. It’s a basic business principle these days, but don’t neglect your own online profile. Ensure you have a good quality photo and updated information about who you are and what you do. Leverage your social networks by joining networking communities and following or liking others in your field.
Use your social channels to engage, rather than sell. Join the conversation and share posts or information of interest to your industry. This gives an indication of what you care about and makes you appear more genuine. Remember: people buy from people.

  1. Don’t go in intending to sell

It may seem counter-intuitive, but trust me, it works.

Remember back to that Business Dictionary question? Go in armed with what you can offer to others and focus on building relationships, rather than selling your business. If you suffer from stage fright, try jotting down ideas beforehand or even keeping them tucked away for reference during the event.

It can still be useful to go into a networking event with a goal in mind, but rather than setting your mind to generating opportunities or sales, measure success in terms of the new contacts gained. It’s an easier objective, and relieves the pressure.

3. Impressions count

It’s the mantra of every recruiter out there, and with good reason. First impressions count: and a networking situation is no different.

In fact, research reported by Business Insider suggests that the judgements we automatically make about someone based on the way they look are hard to shake, even after we’ve interacted with them personally. (This includes the judgements we’ve made based on a photograph – another reason to update that decade-old LinkedIn photo.)

Dress appropriately. If in doubt about the dress code, err on the side of caution and select business dress. Wear your name tag on your right side; people’s eyes will automatically follow the line of sight form the handshake and note it.

The handshake itself is key. People remember a ‘good’ handshake: firm, dry, steady eye contact, a smile. If you’ve successfully closed those opening seconds of introduction, you’ve laid a solid foundation. The rest will follow.

  1. Craft an elevator pitch, and practice it

So, you’ve overcome the first hurdle of exchanging names and shaking hands. How do you open the exchange further?

The answer is, with a succinct (yet memorable) elevator pitch. We’re talking a 30-60 second snapshot, high level, that gives the listener a clear idea of what makes you, or your organization, product or idea, unique.

Don’t forget: you are here to engage and build relationships, not to go in with a hard sell. Try to make it interesting and use the simple format:

  • Your name and your business
  • Explain what you do
  • Outline what need your business resolves, using the SISI framework:
    • Save
    • Improve
    • Solve
    • Increase
  • Explain briefly how you do that
  • Communicate your USP
  • Close by engaging the listener with a question

Avoid jargon: it can appear confusing, may lose the listener or even be interpreted as patronising. Speak their language. Practice in front of the mirror, video yourself or practice with colleagues, friends or family until it feels natural.

  1. Bring business cards – and lots of them

It’s an oldie but a goldie. Contrary to belief that perhaps it has had its hay day in a digitalised world, the business card is still a powerful tool in the networking environment.

Invest in good quality business cards that include all your relevant contact details – including your social media handles. Come armed with plenty and don’t be afraid to hand them out: it’s an exchange, meaning you should get one back in return. Ensure you acknowledge business cards offered to you and thank the contact.

Don’t be that one person we all know too well: the one fumbling erratically in their bag and pockets before apologetically admitting they’ve left them in the desk drawer. It’s so basic, yet surprisingly, so easily missed.

  1. Work the room

A networking opportunity is just that: an opportunity. Don’t waste it by staying glued to the same spot.

Walk the room, visiting all four corners and introducing yourself to others along the way. Don’t hone in on your next group with tunnel vision: be sure to smile, make eye contact and acknowledge others as you go.

When seeking out where to go, a quick win is to identify groups of 3 people. In these cases, it’s likely one of them will not be actively involved in the conversation, giving you a way in.

Don’t feel pressurised to remain with a group: to have meaningful conversations with as many potential connections as possible, you need to manage your time. Have an exit strategy and deploy it if needed. Be polite but honest, and explain you’re looking to talk with other delegates before moving.

Don’t panic when entering new territory. Wait for a natural ebb or gap in the conversation before going in for the introduction. Many of us feel under pressure to dive straight in, or to engage in the conversation before we even understand its context. If you’re laughing at the joke or adding a comment, you don’t want to be caught out for not knowing the punchline.

  1. Remember: communication isn’t just what you say

We communicate using more than just our words. In fact, just 7% of how we communicate is down to the verbal, or words we choose. 38% is vocal, or how we say it; 55% is visual, or down to our body language and expressions.

It may seem impossible to change the way we communicate, but this is something we can easily impact by being aware and practicing. Try your elevator pitch in front of a mirror or practice with colleagues. Where are your hands while you talk? Are you looking your listener in the eye? How are you standing?

Consider how your voice sounds. When we’re hit with nerves, it’s easy to slip into panic: speaking too fast, stumbling on our words. Don’t be afraid to pause or slow it down.

In these incidences, it can be useful to have a drink to hand; if you feel yourself entering panic mode, pause to take a sip and a breath. You can consider what you’re going to say next before starting again, slowing it down.

  1. Ask questions – then listen

The most successful networkers I’ve come across in business aren’t those who dominate or steer conversation. They’re the ones who listen.

Use open, easy questions to initiate conversation. Something as simple as, “May I join you?” or, “what brings you to this event?” are ideal ice-breakers that will set delegates at ease, rather than putting them on the spot with something heavy or intense upfront. Don’t be afraid to stray away from shop talk: asking what people do outside of business can prove an excellent way to get to know the real person, and help identify potential common ground.

When your connection answers, be sure to listen intently and genuinely. In a stressful situation, we may find ourselves using the opportunity to plan our next move or shape our next line. Failing to listen will sabotage any genuine relationship.

Make the other person feel special: look them in the eye, provide visual acknowledgement as they speak, repeat their name or what they say back to them when responding. You are a conversationalist, not a talker. Ideally, you should be listening for 70% of the time.

  1. Share your story / passion

I’ll repeat the mantra: people buy from people.

Networking is successful when those involved are authentic and genuine. In a high-pressured situation, it can be easy to let fear take hold and either narrate a corporate script or make insignificant small talk. Neither will leave a lasting impression.

You have a story; use it. Introducing the human element is more personable and helps people identify with you; winning them over with your passion or enthusiasm for what you do or relaying how and why you have reached where you are today is more likely to stick.

It can be contagious, too: when you are open and share your story, others are more likely to do the same. This creates a great platform for two-way conversation and a lasting impression to help you build and leverage those connections in the future.

  1. Follow up

Networking is where the conversation begins, not where it ends.

Following up on the connections you’ve made during an event is one of the easiest and most effective ways to solidify those relationships and progress them further. Ask your contact the best way to stay in touch – and follow through. Some prefer email or text; others may prefer you to reach out over LinkedIn.

Endeavour to make contact within 24-48hrs, when the memory of the event is still fresh. Reference something you discussed with the connection in question to trigger memory.

Remember, relationships take time: if there was no mention of doing business together at the event, don’t use this first opportunity to launch into a pitch. Instead, consider sending them an article, blog or event of interest. You’re looking to build confidence in your contact. There’s a chance you may never do business together at all; however, they may be the value referral or link to another opportunity in the future.

Networking pays

Research shows that even in a world of social platforms, Skype meetings, email and globalisation, networking continues to have far-reaching benefits. CNN has estimated that 80% of jobs are never advertised, and are instead filled through networking and referrals – if your objective is to progress, you may be missing the boat.

For those in business, networking also offers:

  • OPPORTUNITIES Leading to new and future business
  • EXPOSURE Giving you a forum to promote and draw attention to your business, cause, or personal brand
  • CONTACTS AND RELATIONSHIPS A chance to form and maintain a strong contact base
  • COMMON GROUND The opportunity for like-minded people to come together to discuss common interests
  • LEARNING A unique chance for you to learn from experienced professionals

Given the gains, can you afford not to?

Are you nervous about networking? Looking to build your confidence and leverage opportunities more effectively? Why not contact us and discover how we can support you in progressing and growing your business?

Authored and contributed by: Gilly Thomson, ISM Leader.