Expert Author Susan Leigh
For many people, especially 'newbies', the thought of attending a networking event can fill them with dread. The prospect of entering a room full of strangers, starting a conversation, maybe having to deliver a 60 second introduction to other attendees, sell their 'stuff' can seem daunting, far too stressful to entertain.
It's easy to forget that we regularly network most days of our lives. We strike up conversations with strangers, discuss the requirements of our potential customers and clients, share updates on the latest business practices with colleagues, perhaps seek advice over a particular business problem or decision we're working on. We may simply not appreciate how well these familiar skills apply to the world of more formal networking.
Let's look at networking and your business growth:
- Ensure that you present yourself as a smart professional, from the way you look and dress right through to any literature or handouts you may wish to distribute. Someone once said, you only get one chance to make a first impression! Quality business cards are important, but use them appropriately and resist the temptation to hand them out like confetti, otherwise they may end up discarded in the recycling bin!
- Whilst it can be a little unnerving entering a room full of strangers remember that everyone's there to meet new people too. Pay attention to the different groups of people and notice the signals their body language is displaying before you decide to approach. Some people may be there to specifically catch up with one particular person, are engrossed in their discussion and as such are in a 'closed' group. There's no point trying to gate crash their conversation. Look out for the more 'open' conversations, the people who wish to be joined by others.
- Treat networking as an opportunity to make connections, build relationships, circulate and get known as the go-to guy in your field. Working as a sole trader or in a small business can be lonely, so getting out there, meeting people, building relationships can be valuable on many levels. Friendships can be made, complementary alliances formed, help shared.
- A basic tenet of networking is to get to know, like and trust the people you meet. Few of us are likely to refer business to someone we hardly know. Our inner circle of friends, family and contacts are precious and we need to feel sure that they will be in safe hands. Once you have confidence in the people you've met be generous in passing on referrals for work and build a reputation as a valuable point of contact.
- Be interested in the people you meet, what they do; ask about any problems or challenges they may be facing. People are often happy to talk about themselves and that's fine. Remember, genuine relationships take time to establish. Then, next time you meet you'll be able to smile and have a reason to start conversing with them again.
- Prepare a short introduction about what you have to offer. Some networking groups offer a 60 second round where everyone is given the opportunity to say a little about themselves. Resist the temptation to say everything you can about your business. Focus on one aspect which will whet people's appetite for more or deliver an interesting fact or tip each time you attend. Try to end with a memorable tag line or slogan.
- As you begin to feel more comfortable with your network meetings it can be tempting to stay within your regular group, the people you're familiar with. It can seem easier to treat it as a social event, rather than mingle with people you don't know. Someone told me about a rule they had which ensured they talked to 3 new people at every meeting they attended. That way they used each meeting well, made new contacts and were able to develop the potential for leads.
- Keep in touch with the people you've met through networking, maybe via email or with an occasional interesting and informative newsletter. Remember to follow-up on something you've been told or arrange to catch-up over coffee from time to time.
- Use the opportunity to present your business to the group. Some groups offer a formal presentation slot of 10-20 minutes at each meeting where different attendees are able to share information, educational tips and insights into their businesses. These are not meant to be used as blatant sales pitches but rather provide a chance to give members a better, clearer insight into what you do. And they're a great way to build your confidence in presenting in a relatively safe, familiar environment.
Take time to find a group that suits you best. There are groups that meet at different times of the day, some meet weekly, monthly, intermittently, are for different professions. Some meetings are free to attend, others vary in price depending on their level of exclusivity. Attend several, do your research and enjoy the opportunity to mix and build new relationships whilst growing your business.