A room full of strangers can be a daunting prospect – especially when the goal is not just to have a fun time but also to develop business leads and new contacts. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a lot of advice on networking over the years – some good, some bad, some middling. Here are just five principles that I keep in mind, which I hope will help you make your networking more enjoyable and productive.
Know what you want
It sounds obvious: but so many people turn up to networking events not knowing why they’re there. Be clear about what you want from the event. Are you looking for someone with specific skills, such as a lawyer, accountant or new finance director? Maybe you’re looking for new customers, a new supplier, new employees or a new job – or perhaps all of the above! It’s fine to have multiple ‘hats’ – in fact it makes it easy to find something in common with many people – just make sure you know what they are. And if you’re just there to practice networking and meet some people, that’s fine too. Set yourself a specific goal – such as talking to 5 new people, getting 3 business cards or finding some way to help at least one person in the room.
Do your homework
If a copy of the delegate list is provided in advance, make a note of the people you most want to speak to (based on your objectives), and get a general feel for who they are and what they do. The more you know about someone, the easier it is to find topics of conversation. It might also help you to feel more comfortable when you bump into someone whose name you recognise from your homework.
Find out what other people want
Listening is a cliché for a reason. Ask plenty of questions when networking, and try and work out what people want and how you can help them. This is a good principle anyway for a happy life, but in networking it specifically has three important functions. Firstly, if you’re busy trying to solve someone’s problem, you forget to be nervous and you certainly don’t run out of topics of conversation. Secondly, if you understand what they’re there for and whether you can help or not, you can understand when they say goodbye – and don’t take it personally. Thirdly, what goes around, comes around, and that’s never truer than in a networking group, where people will remember past behaviour and treat you accordingly. The person you helped out last week might just be the one who recommends you to a new client a year from now.
Use your network
Some people will tell you to not even speak to your colleagues or people you know in a networking group. After all, you’re all there to network with new people, right? Well yes, to a degree. However, don’t feel afraid to use your network. Ask the people you know to make an introduction for you to another contact of theirs in the room – a warm introduction is much better than a cold approach – or use them as an easy entry point into a group. They will feel good about helping you out, and you will find it much easier to start conversations. It’s also important to remember that you should be keeping an eye open for ways you can help your existing contacts as well as – or even more so than – your new ones.
The homework doesn’t stop with your pre-event preparation. If you collected some business cards, remember to follow up after the event with a quick ‘nice to meet you’ note or any follow-up introductions or information you promised. It helps to cement you in people’s minds and makes them more likely to remember you next time! And if, like I have on occasion, you discover you’ve collected 30 or 40 business cards in the space of a week and you can’t possibly find the time to do this for all of them, reassess the number of networking events you go to…and select the most important contacts to make contact with afterwards.
I hope you found those principles useful. If you’ve got any other hints and tips for beginners to networking – or any questions – please do post in the comments below.