Tips for making connections and building relationships
Let’s face it, ‘networking’ can often be an excuse for socialising and drinking with peers/colleagues with no real benefit….but if you are savvy about it, you can harness the opportunity in the most diverse situations to your best advantage.
Definition of networking: interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts
What are the key gains here? Information and contacts. Knowledge can be key in helping you make the right decisions and giving you a competitive advantage with prospective clients. Expanding your network can greatly improve your chances of education/career success and progression. Many statistics suggest that 60-80% of jobs are secured through networking and personal relationships. If you bother to do so, you may just open up those invisible doors that remain in complete darkness for others… Based on personal experience of attending many different networking events, I have formed a list of tips to benefit those novice networkers… as well as some of the more seasoned networkers who want to brush up their game!
1.Research the best events– There are lots of ways of identifying the most appropriate events for yourself: ask peers, join relevant Linked in groups, look on companies’ and professional associations’ websites, follow young professional’s groups and join Eventbrite which advertises local events and enables you to obtain tickets. At this point, if you know the organiser of the event, you could introduce yourself by email, so you at least have one warm contact when you arrive - they can also then keep you informed of other similar events.
2.Set a game plan– Prepare – networking is active not passive! Think about what you want to get out of the event, who you want to meet, can you look them up on LinkedIn/websites to see what they look like, do you need to brush up on any conversation/technical topics beforehand, is it possible to get an attendees list? This includes packing those business cards, notepad and pen. You will inevitably then maximise your time at the event to get the most out of it. Also prioritise those you want to speak to first. It can be a nice touch if you want to catch up with people you already know to a certain extent, to drop them an email in advance so you can arrange to meet them at a specific point and location during the event. It shows them you have a genuine interest, you are organised and gains their commitment. This leads me nicely onto point number 2….
3.Time your approaches well– One thing I learnt (the hard way!) especially from evening events is that there are always a number of people who leave early as they may have trains to catch, families to get back to, early starts the next day etc. Therefore you need to get in early - make a bee line for your most important targets, so you are not kicking yourself if they leave before you get round to it! Plus you won’t have the stress of being late which you don’t need, especially if you are already nervous!
Another benefit of getting there early is being able to speak to people when they arrive on their own and before they attach to groups. If you do tackle a group, don’t try and break into a group when someone is in full-on conversation – it can be perceived as rude. Wait for a natural break in the conversation such as a laugh.
4.Find a networking buddy–Of course not essential, but having a ‘partner’ can ease the pressure in many situations. It is less intimating when approaching people and there is someone else to ask questions/make comments so you can relax more!
5.Pretend to be confident, even when you are not feeling it! Yes it can be scary when people are huddled in groups, deep in conversation, especially if you are new to these situations….but rest assured you are not alone in feeling that way! Chances are, a fair number people in the room will be feeling the same so if you approach them, they will welcome you into the conversation – after all you could be a useful connection to them too. If you are naturally shy, this can obviously be harder but you can learn through practice how to act confidently in situations i.e. ‘fake it until you make it’! You don’t have to be loud and talk lots - simple smiles and open body language can convey confidence. Then the more you get used to these situations, the more the façade will become reality.
6.Analyse the body-language–It’s not rocket science to know if people are in a closed group hunched in, they are probably not your warmest targets to approach. Go for people on their own or groups standing in an open circle or ‘u-shape’ who have relaxed posture, open arms and are smiling. Also be aware of your own body language – people are much more likely to come talk to you if you display signs of openness.
7.Prepare some ice-breaker questions -You don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – you can start most conversation with some light questions such as “hello, my name is….are you enjoying the evening?” or “hi, what brings you to this event?” If you do decide to tackle a big group, you can use a soft approach such as “I hope I’m not interrupting….”, “your conversation sounds very interesting, do you mind if I join you?”
8.Listening is key– Resist the temptation to launch into your own monologue – this can come across as arrogant. You need to start by actively listening to the other person, facilitate this by asking open questions and seem engaged (even if you sometimes might not be!) People feel valued and respected if you truly listen and you can even repeat back parts of what they said in affirmation.
9.Build rapport as quickly as possible–Find common ground, whether that be work or personal.
10.Let your personality shine–Don’t fall into the trap of acting how you think you should act or emulating other people. People will warm to you if they see what makes you different and special and you will be more memorable!
11.Don’t lie/blag– Don’t pretend you know something when you don’t – you can get caught out which is very embarrassing. Asking a genuine question demonstrates curiosity.
12.Maintain a professional image at all times- Limit alcohol consumption – this can undo all good work you did earlier in the evening! Also no matter how relaxed you are with someone, be careful of the use of colloquial languageand swear words as they may not approve – best to err on the side of caution.
13.Tactful mingling–When you feel you have got enough from a particular conversation you can simply excuse yourself by saying you have spotted someone you know or you need to mingle. You could also introduce the person you are speaking to, to the new contact, then you are adding value. If someone is relentlessly talking (there are always some!), you can always use the ‘loo’ or ‘drink’ card to escape politely!
14.Take contact details– Business cards are obviously ideal for this and of course your phone – there are even a number of apps now which scan business cards, so you don’t run the risk of losing them! These include ‘Business Card Scanner’, ‘CamCard’ and ‘Office Lens’. Failing that there is nothing wrong with a good old pen and paper! Most people these days will be on LinkedIn so ask the question and ask if it is ok to connect. Also don’t be afraid to make notes – as good as your memory may be retaining singular pieces of information, when you are being bombarded with hundreds of snippets in one evening, it is easy for a large proportion of this to slip away in the noise…..
15.Follow up– and do it quickly i.e. strike while the iron is hot! People will often meet many people at a networking event and will only have a clear memory of each individual for a few days, so you need to capitalise on this and follow up shortly after the event. Email, LinkedIn, phone call, Twitter – all open up communication and cement relationships. If you had a clear purpose, reiterate this. Also remember networking is reciprocal – is there anything useful you can do for them e.g. put then in touch with one of your contacts, pass on some information, invite them to an event that could be relevant or if you get on really well, ask them for coffee or lunch! If you do someone a favour, you will be truly memorable and they will always be more willing to help you in the future should you need it.
16.Be opportunistic– Remember networking doesn’t always have to take place at pre-arranged formal events, opportunities to network can present themselves accidentally at any time! For example bumping into someone in a queue for a sandwich, in a bar, at the gym. It is always worthwhile keeping this at the back of your mind, so you look professional at all times. Imagine how you would feel if you saw someone influential in the street and you had to turn the other way as you wore your scruffy trainers and didn’t do your hair!
17.Learn for next time– Look at things you did well and things you perhaps struggled with – ask advice from peers and put this into practice next time.
So in summary – (it's a long list I know!), if you watch out for the pitfalls and make a concerted effort to engage in the activity, in no time all of the things above will seem perfectly second nature and you will be a true networking pro!