Networking—not that again! Networking events are filled with desperate career climbers smarming up to smug high-flyers, eating pretentious canapés and agreeing like sycophantic, nodding dogs to any meaningless “advice”. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s still a pointless exercise. Nobody really gets anything out of it, do they?
Actually, networking has grown up a lot in recent years. Online networking is gaining momentum, with sites like LinkedIn becoming increasingly important in a networking strategy. If you shudder at the thought of face-to-face networking, it might be time you looked at it from a different perspective.
The reason so many of us detest networking—and claim to be terrible at it—is because we’ve been doing it all wrong. It shouldn’t be about projecting a false and superficial image of yourself, telling everyone how fantastic you are or sucking up to people. It is about building valuable, lasting and mutually beneficial contacts, one by one. Here are some great tips to take on board if you want to become a networking whiz without selling yourself out.
1. Adapt networking to suit you.
Ignore any networking advice that demands you must behave in a certain way. Forcing yourself to act in a way that isn’t natural to you won’t help anyone in the long term; you will still hate networking and everyone you connect with will get a warped idea of who you are. Also, ignore anyone who says that the big events are the best way to make connections. If you hate networking as it is, change it. Don’t like big crowds? Arrange one-to-one meetings. Not a talkative person? Listen instead.
2. Less is more.
Attending every event, meeting and talk won’t necessarily result in more contacts. You will be much more productive if you are selective about which events to attend. That way you can be more focused in what you want to get out of each meeting, rather than forcing yourself to attend event after event and becoming drained and uninspired.
3. Plan your first impression.
You only get one chance to make a first impression, so make it count. I’m not saying you need to plaster a false grin on your face and practice your handshake (although that is important), but think in more detail about conversation starters or other ways to initiate an interesting conversation. If you know specific individuals are going to be there who you want to get to know, find out a bit about them before you meet so that you will have something to talk about.
4. Help out.
Many people dislike networking events because circulating with a group of strangers can be intimidating. Instead of standing awkwardly by the buffet, offer to help out. This will give you something to talk about and will also give people the impression that you’re helpful and selfless.
5. Get in line.
This is a clever tactic, but one that is bound to work. If you’re going to a networking event alone and have nobody to talk to—join the queue! Any queue: for the bar, the buffet, the toilets, you name it! Queuing is a very British activity and makes a good ruse for striking up conversation with the person in front or behind you. You effectively have a captive audience, and making conversation will come more naturally. There is also a limited time period, so if you accidentally get in the queue next to a complete bore, you know it will be over soon.
6. Set networking goals.
Heading to an event with a goal in mind will make you all the more productive. Try to aim for one or two useful connections, or if there is a specific person you want to meet there, aim to get their attention. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you can politely excuse yourself instead of hanging around, forcing conversation or overstaying your welcome.
7. Show don’t tell.
Don’t bore people with rehearsed stories of how great you are. Rather, demonstrate your greatness in real life. Be friendly, greet others with a smile and offer to help out at every opportunity.
You wouldn’t turn up to an interview without preparing, so don’t make the same mistake at networking events. Find out in advance who is going to be there and which organizations will be good for you to connect with. If you have an idea of the companies and individuals you are likely to encounter, you will be less intimidated by the situation.
Nerves often make people gabble their way through awkward situations. Have you ever been aware that everybody is talking but nobody is listening? Be the listener. The chances are people will remember you more for your attentive interest whilst they were talking than for your shouting over them. People are flattered when you pay attention to what they are saying, so you will no doubt form some good relationships from your listening ability.
10. Follow-up or forget about it.
Networking events are only the beginning of a connection. If you don’t follow up with the people you met, there was no point in going in the first place. Follow up by adding your new connections on LinkedIn, dropping them an email or giving them a call. If you want to, you could even arrange a one-to-one meeting where you can get to know each other better.