Top 10 networking tips

Top 10 networking tips

Everyone has the potential to be a great networker, you just need to know how. Get top tips on overcoming your nerves and making great contacts.

It's no secret that the best form of networking is, actually, not working. Try to ram a sales message down someone's throat over a glass of Champers at an event and the chances are that you'll end up on your own, checking your phone for messages that just aren't know the feeling!

If you go to an event there's absolutely no harm in treating it like a party. After all, the dictionary definition of a party is  'a social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking and entertainment'. Sounds like an event to me! And the more fun, the more memorable...

Whoever said business isn't personal was wrong. Very wrong.

The fact is that, more often than not, you'll end up choosing to do business with people you like. Of course, events (of all shapes and sizes) are the best forum for meeting people and you'll gravitate towards people you enjoy being around. It all comes down to animal magnetism. Again.

To that effect, successful networking should be almost effortless because its a natural ebb and flow that dictates the conversation. Relax, be yourself, be enthusiastic about the things you're genuinely enthusiastic about and don't be shy! This brings me back to my initial 'not working' comment. If you like somebody, you'll enjoy their company and chances are, you'll drop them an email the next day, signifying the beginning of a new found relationship, even if you have spent the whole time talking about football. In fact, especially so.

In the same way that some corporations get social media horribly wrong by trying to contrive it, corporates used to, and sometimes still do, try to 'target' their employees (a word I equally despise because it instantly creates an 'us and them' culture which is counter-productive) with a random number of business cards to (aimlessly) collect at each event they attend. It defeats the art of networking because it lacks authenticity and people can spot that a mile off.

One great contact is better than a thousand mediocre ones. Just ask Larry Page.

Networking is not initially about volume. It's not always a quick win, short-term exercise either because if you become an incessant 'taker' you'll quickly get a reputation for not being a 'giver' and that's not cool. It's universally recognised that you need to give to your network before you receive. And it's a statistical fact.

Europe's leading networking strategist, Andy Lopata, is a firm believer in creating strong networks and referral groups. He's one of those guys who constantly puts you in touch with people but, perhaps more importantly, he's one of those guys who always picks up the phone when you need him, or anyone else for that matter. He will always know someone who knows someone and that's not an accident. Andy says that when you're starting out 'you need to understand exactly what new business you want to generate, which introductions you need and what support you are looking for'. It's sage advice for two reasons:

1) It will enable you to focus

2) It will put you in the right frame of mind.

You've got to be up for it and you've got to realise that everyone else is in the room for the same reason. So don't be shy and never be afraid to ask for help. People like to help. Andy also advises that you operate with patience. Very rarely does a smash and grab approach work. Putting it simply, you can only get out of the fridge what you've put in to the fridge! "Don't write off groups and networking sites before giving them a chance to produce a return. It's rare that a network will produce to its full potential in the first few months of membership". There are no quick wins because in life, you very rarely get something for nothing.

It takes two to network and the best lead in the world is useless if you're un-engaging. Or an asshole.

Another of my pet hates is when people tell me to seek out 'the most important person in the room'. Richard Branson may technically be more 'important' than the sales director of the Hilton Group (other leading hotel groups are available!) but its all relative and I know who's going to be more helpful to me from a direct business point of view. In fact, Branson taught me something I'll never forget at an event we both attended a couple of years ago. After the hundredth random 'fan' had approached him (whilst I was trying to speak to him) and proceeded to tell him at great length about an experience they had on Virgin Atlantic ten years ago (as well as why they need an upgrade if they 'come back' from British Airways). I asked him if he ever got tired of it. "No, not really" was his reply. "Because these guys are the reason I'm here". He continued, "When I'm speaking to someone, whoever they are, they have my undivided attention. The worst thing you can do is look around the room for someone 'more important'".

That's possibly the best advice I've ever been given, certainly from a networking perspective. Speaking to important people doesn't make you important, especially when you've got nothing for them, apart from unfounded reasons why they should be interested in you. Its the worst 'take/take' scenario and breaks every unwritten rule - smash and grab as well as going for the jugular without engineering a meaningful introduction. It’s therefore a wasted opportunity. As Margaret Thatcher once said "If you need to tell someone you're important, you're probably not!" Get someone else to deem you important and make the introduction. It'll work wonders.

It's not what you know. It's not who you know. It's who knows you.

In the digital age, as LinkedIn has so successfully demonstrated, the power of networks is phenomenal because its not just about your connections. It's about your connections' connections. As Andy so rightly points out "Build relationships with people you get on with and don't ever worry about selling to them. Instead, develop their trust and they will choose to introduce you to the people they know”. Authenticity.

In the age of social media and digital marketing there are more face to face networking opportunities than ever before - from breakfast seminars to charity lunches, social dinners to evening receptions; which is ironic because many people do more on Facebook then they do in real life. And they certainly look better - I saw a great e-card the other day which said "Your Facebook profile may depict you as 'Mom of the year' but, don't forget, I actually know you in real life!” Too true.

So, with all that in mind, here are our Top 10 real life, face to face networking tips:

1.  Take a deep breath. Be prepared

If you're shy or nervous, don't worry, you're not alone. A recent survey on social anxiety in the New York Times found that the fear of walking into a room full of strangers was even greater than the fear of speaking in public! Andy offers some excellent advice on being prepared - "Before you go into the room, get yourself into the right frame of mind and remind yourself why you are there. You may know some people at the event? If so, spend some time with them at first, before breaking away to meet new people. Often your existing contacts will introduce you to someone new”. Oh, and in the same way, be prepared to rescue someone else in the same boat!

2.  Be a Giver before being a Taker

Referral networks don't work if both parties just want to take. In fact, both must have their hearts set on how they can help one another for it to work. Andy advises “The best way to achieve personal success at an event is by getting the wheels of networking turning by first helping someone else. If you do this, you'll inspire them to help you in the future”. 

3. The best form of networking is not-working. Do. Not. Sell.  

Not many people go to a networking event to actively 'buy' as you can imagine. As Andy points out, "that isn't to say there won't be people present with an open mind to what you have to offer, but remember that buying is not their primary motivation”.

4. You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.

I don't follow this rule at all (because I think I have so much to say) but Andy makes a key distinction: "The greatest asset of any networker is the ability to listen. And by that, I mean listen for people, rather than listen to them'. OK, so I'm not all bad then! In summary, it's not all about things having to relate to you personally. We need to consider how we can help others in our network - what comes around goes around.

5. It's ok to talk about football

It's not okay if the person you're talking to doesn't like football though.

If you're at a business event, you don't necessarily need to talk about business. People are often more engaged by the things they are passionate about. I recently met the Chairman of a big PLC who everyone was terrified of. He was an aggressive Glaswegian, seemingly with no time for anyone, yet when I was introduced to him, I spoke about Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement. He completely changed and nobody could believe it. It turns out he has a house near to Sir Alex in the South of France and he spent the next half hour talking passionately about his preferred subject. I bet he was relieved to be finally speaking about something he's passionate about. Andy quips "As a rule, don't ever begin a conversation with 'What do you do' unless you're prepared to walk into a bar and ask 'do you come here often'”. Thought not.

6. Ask for what you want. If you don't ask, you don't get.

"When you go to a networking event, know in advance what you want to achieve from it" Andy advises. "The theory of six degrees of separation states that we are no more than six steps from anyone in the world. Any person to whom you are speaking could well be one of those steps!" It is therefore important to speak openly and enthusiastically about what you're trying to achieve. You may be surprised at who can help...

7. Be aware of others.

We've all been there. You arrive a little late and the event is in full flow. You're not sure which group to crash in on and how. There aren't really any rules but a basic suggestion would be to avoid breaking into a one on one conversation between two people. Instead, look to join a larger group although never interrupt whoever's talking, mid flow. Wait patiently (for as long as you need) before pitching in - there's no prize for speed of integration. Remember, listening is twice as important as speaking so nobody will mind and you won't be conspicuous in your silence. "If you see someone on their own, make the effort to go up and speak to them" advises Andy Lopata. It's a great opportunity to strike up a new relationship. "And if someone joins your group, make the effort to introduce them to everyone" he concludes.

8. Be there. Or be...left out!

This is a pretty obvious point but its amazing how many opportunities are missed. Being in the events industry, I'm invited to several events each week and I miss more than I attend. Yet whenever I do attend, I'm always amazed at how many great connections I make. Almost without exception. The more you attend these events, the more networks you'll become part of and the more your face will be recognised. There will come a point where you have to be selective about the events you attend and you'll be able to establish which ones these are by understanding your objectives. 

9. Stay in touch.

Do what you said you'd do. The very next day. As such, it's very important you strike whilst the iron's hot. Especially if you were 'not-working' the evening before, because it'll all amount to nothing if you don't follow up your initial 'football chat' from a business perspective. At this stage, it's okay to be selective. If there was no mutual rapport the other party won't mind if they don't hear from you either! Andy Lopata offers the following advice: "You should be looking to establish one or two potentially long term relationships from each event. Those will come from six or seven contacts who you have followed up". This follow-up is still not the time to sell though. Rather, you can use this simple email follow up as an opportunity to ask permission to sell, perhaps via a meeting?

10. Patience. It takes time to build a relationship.

Think of the networking event as the start of a wider process. It's not all about quick wins. It's about building meaningful relationships, helping others and nurturing new contacts. Remember, you can only get out of the fridge what you put in there. I can’t tell you how many great leads come my way, seemingly out of the blue, weeks, months, even years after networking events I’ve attended. So work your networks. Hard. It always pays in the end.

Funnily enough, one of the most simple yet successful networking initiatives I’ve experienced is known affectionately as ‘Mike’s Bell’. When the Concerto Group’s Chairman, Mike Kershaw, was President of ISES back in 2008 (and when I was his (greatly inspired) President Elect) he brought a hand-held school bell to every monthly event and it became somewhat of a tradition. He (or I) would stand on stage and insist that whenever the bell rang (every two minutes or so for ten minutes) you dropped the person you were talking to and grabbed someone you’d never seen before and so on.  This was remarkably successful because it immediately put everyone in the same boat, with an excuse to approach someone in a fun and collaborative way. Nobody wants to be left without a partner! Funnily enough, after a few minutes of this, we found that people got the hang of it and continued the process throughout the evening.  I carried this on throughout my year as President and introduced it to our networking events too. It’s amazing how many times I’m approached by people who ask where my bell is! Even though it was technically Mike’s bell!    

You can discover all sorts of free advice and downloads relating to networking and referrals at Andy Lopata’s website.Visit his networking shop for a variety of resources, books, CDs and even an iPhone app.

Look out for an appearance from Andy Lopata at an upcoming networking event.


Will Broome CEO

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