Networking in Business
Look forward to events rather than feeling anxious, uncomfortable and nervous
Into the Abyss
When it comes to Networking, unless you're a born socialiser, it can feel like torture. As a matter of fact, going to the kind of social events we're expected to attend in order to develop business can feel like one of those things that other people know more about than we do.
You know how it feels: other people seem to be more at ease, look as though they're enjoying themselves, appear quite comfortable moving from little group to little group introducing themselves.
They're the ones who seem so grown up, while the rest of us flounder around and feel about thirteen that really awkward age.
Not only that, it can feel doubly excruciating if you're already shy. But even people who aren't shy can feel self-conscious in these slightly artificial circumstances.
Now, if you're a born socialiser, this article probably isn't for you. If you don't suffer from stage fright or the pangs of embarrassment when faced with a roomful of strangers, you're the type of person other people envy and could probably teach networking skills yourself.
It's all the rest of us who need help!
Yet, these days, we really do have to meet more and more people as part of our jobs. We don't all have golf courses to go to, to do deals at the 19th hole. Increasingly, companies are either organising networking events themselves, or expect their business getters to get to some as a matter of course.
What we've been aware of in recent years is that because of cost savings, downsizing, whatever you want to call it, companies now require more from their employees than ever before. Where once people were virtually handed lists of contacts through which to develop business, now these same people have to pretty much find their own contacts first.
The problem is, that for many business developers, that's not where their primary skills lie. So the idea of attending networking events, going to conferences, initiating conversations with people they don't know, can feel not only daunting but isn't really what they were trained to do in the first place!
So instead of looking forward to meeting new people, talking up the business and maybe even having a good time, this type of person can feel resentful, anxious and out of their depth.
Now, everyone knows on one level that networking makes things happen and that developing good relationships is the key to developing a more successful business. However, putting a group of people in a room together doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to talk to each other given everything we've just talked about.
See, what tends to happen is that people look around the crowd hoping to see someone they know, however tenuously. Then with great relief, they make a beeline for that person (swiping a drink along the way) and latch on and won't let loose their attachment unless absolutely forced to. Because they've 'found' someone, they may also feel as though that's the job done (even though they really know it isn't).
We've all heard the notion that to be a good networker you have to be able to 'work a room'. Doesn't that sound ghastly? Yes, we know that there is a degree of calculation about networking, but 'working a room' seems to leave out the whole idea of developing relationships.
Good networking isn't about speaking to as many people as you possibly can, even though it might seem that that's the only way to be successful. You're certainly not going to get anywhere hogging the nibbles or drinking the bar dry. However, true networking is a reciprocal process and a forum for information sharing and relationship building that requires the right tools, approach, and frame of mind.
Just saying, "Here, let me give you my card," also isn't going to cut the mustard these days. We don't know about you, but it can feel quite off-putting when someone thrusts a card and a phoney smile at us and expects us to welcome them with open arms and give them a ton of business.
It takes a lot more than that, which is why people who do it well look so much more 'able' than the rest of us.
It's important to remember that we're not just talking about specific networking events. The best networkers we know are always on the lookout for opportunities to talk to people. Indeed, in chatting with a few of them, they all said they don't even think what they do is networking it's more about opportunities to make connections with other people. They're interested in the 'relating' part of relationships.
However, if you are someone who isn't comfortable at events, you may find it equally, if not more difficult, to take advantage of these opportunities, or even to notice that they're there.
Where on earth do you begin if the very idea of walking into a room filled with stranger fills you with dread? Where do you begin if 'schmoozing' just isn't your style?
It's not as difficult as you think!
For those who don't feel adept at it, networking can feel like having to tackle one hurdle after another.
Actually, most of us already have all the skills and tools we need to be good at networking. It's just putting them in the right order that will make the difference.
See if you can think of networking opportunities, not only as 'what can I get out of this situation?', but even more so, as 'how can I relate to this person?'.
Take it from us; given the right opening and encouragement, most people just love to talk about themselves. Not only that, they love to be called upon to talk about their field of expertise it's flattering to know people want to pick your brains.
If you know this is true, then that's your starting point. Don't worry about the small talk, just look for the place to introduce a couple of open questions and let the other person have the floor.
Think of using simple phrases like:
"That sounds very interesting."
"That's something I know nothing about, please tell me more."
"How did you get into that in the first place?"
This does a couple of things. One, it gives you breathing space and a chance to think about what you might like to say in return. Two, it gives you loads of information about the other person for you to tuck away. And part of this tucking away is looking for common ground.
As much as we may want to stand out in the world and be uniquely ourselves, it's also quite reassuring to take note of the areas where we are like other people. Common ground can be: you both like golf, you both holiday in the Cotswolds, you both garden, you both like chocolate eclairs. Anything will do.
Alongside finding common ground, is personal disclosure offering something about yourself that isn't necessarily obvious: you coach an under seven football team, you volunteer for a charity once a week, you play in a rock band on weekends. Once again, anything will do. We're not saying reveal your deepest secrets or vulnerabilities, but most us do respond when someone makes that extra effort and gives us something of themselves.
These are the best methods we know in order to move away from inconsequential chitchat into something more real.
Another thing people relate to is enthusiasm. Yes, we know that sometimes people can occasionally go overboard and overwhelm you with their eagerness, however, enthusiasm is infectious!
When someone is passionate about something in their lives, they can be far more compelling to listen to than someone just going through the motions and describing what it is they do.
You may not be enthusiastic about everything you do, but if you think about it, there will be bits of your job that are great (NB: if you can't find anything, we suggest you look for another job). It may be the people, the environment, what your company is trying to achieve, the actual products you produce or the services you offer. Identify the bits that most resonate with you, and you should be able to tap into some significant enthusiasm and energy when you talk about them.
For us, this is your vital triumvirate: common ground, personal disclosure, enthusiasm.
Yes, there are specific tools and techniques we cover in our networking courses, such as how to join and leave groups, understanding social conventions, how to prepare, creating a strategy, doing the follow-up. But without the relationship stuff first and foremost, the techniques simply look and feel phoney.
Money in the Bank
Speaking of money, we also think of networking as investing in the future.
When someone aggressively networks, it can feel as though they're trying to milk the cow dry in one go. Gimme gimme gimme what can I get out of you NOW! Whereas the true networker who is interested in the relationship side of things isn't trying to manipulate the situation to suit their immediate needs.
The idea is to develop knowledge about each other and enough of a trust so that neither side feels taken advantage of.
Here's a recent example from Jo Ellen:
Quite a number of years ago Impact Factory did a whole bunch of work for a particular company and I became very friendly with one of their senior managers. After a few years, she put another manager in touch with because she thought we'd get along. We did.
Then both of them left the company and went their separate ways, and the second person eventually brought us in to do some work for her new company.
But there were periods when she was job hunting and reassessing and through it all, she and I stayed in touch, had the occasional lunch, gossipped, kept each other in the loop.
Then the company she was working for went belly-up and she decided to go it alone, as they say, and set up her own consultancy. Just the other day she rang me to pick my brains and I was really happy to do that for her. She could make a substantial withdrawal in the goodwill she had built up and there's still plenty left over in the pot.
What each of us has been doing over the years has been 'investing' in the relationship which pays off in all kinds of different ways, not just to do with getting more work.
What I also realised when talking to her, is that if any of my advice pays off, I'll feel really chuffed. It's very satisfying to know that my input may help her get new clients. Plus I introduced an idea that she hadn't thought of yet, which was also satisfying.
This is what networking is all about: we have something to give each other.
Now here's another example from Jo Ellen that's the antithesis of relationship and all about gimme, gimme, gimme, dressed up in the guise of networking.
A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine met someone on a workshop and they got talking about books and agents. As this friend knew that I already had an agent, she asked if she could give my number to this person so she could pick my brain about how to go about getting one. I didn't mind.
The next thing I knew I got this quite abrupt e-mail asking me for the name of my agent and would I mind her using my name.
Well, I minded quite a bit. We had never met; I wouldn't pass on anyone to my agent till I knew something about them and I didn't want to be guilty of wasting my agent's time without having at least read something of hers. So I wrote back, saying that I would feel more comfortable if I read something of hers first and that I wouldn't be introducing her to my agent at this point.
Well! I got a vituperative e-mail back saying I obviously didn't know what networking was all about and that she had no intention of letting me see her ideas.
End of networking relationship.
Ah, but you see, there never was any relationship in the first place. She hadn't laid any groundwork; hadn't put any effort into making me want to support her; hadn't created a two-way connection.
How not to do networking.
It's The Who Not The What
We know it's a cliche, but it really is 'you they buy'. That's why we've concentrated here on the relationship aspects of networking because that's where the money is.
You may have the greatest product or the most fabulous service to offer, but in terms of networking, people relate to people. It's really hard to have a relationship with someone you don't particularly like it's too much like hard work, and then it really does feel as though the whole process is quite mercenary.
So if it is indeed, you they buy, you need to have the confidence that you're worth it, you're worth the investment.
And this is where some people come a cropper.
If you're already shy or are uncomfortable in the networking arena, confidence isn't necessarily the first quality that springs to mind. Now, we can't transform you into a confident person, in one short document. We can, however, give you a few tips on how to start thinking like one. And we know, that if you start thinking like one, your behaviour will eventually follow.
Remember earlier we talked about enthusiasm. When you think about something you're enthusiastic about, it does spill over and affects how you speak. For instance, instead of thinking, 'I don't know what to talk about. I wish I were at home in front of the telly. How am I going to just go up and introduce myself to someone I don't know?', you could think along the lines of, 'I really enjoyed the film I saw over the weekend. Who here looks like they go to films?' or 'I'm so proud my son ran in his first marathon. Can't wait to bore people about his achievement.'
This technique really does work! It lifts your attitude and gets you to focus on something positive and away from your own concerns and discomfort.
Alongside this, it wouldn't hurt to make a mental list of some of your good qualities. Imagine someone interviewing a couple of your friends, asking them what makes you special. What would they say? Why are you special? What is it you have to offer that's more than your role at work? If you can remind yourself of some of this when you enter 'Yipes! Grownups!' territory, you're off to a great start.
There's another mental list you can prepare, too. This one is work-related. What is it that your company offers that you'd rate as wonderful, useful, important, helpful, etc? These are the kinds of things you can introduce when appropriate.
But here's the fun bit you may never end up talking about work at all! You may spend an entire evening chatting to a whole variety of people and never mentioning the specifics of what you do or what you offer. What you will have been doing is making a whole bunch of investments that at some point you may call upon.
We believe it's fun to think this way because you'll have a far better chance of enjoying yourself if you take the pressure off having to do business. If you've laid the right foundations, and focused on the relationships, the business eventually comes.
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