Do you look at an invitation that includes the phrase 'with networking opportunities' and find your heart sinks? I confess now that I absolutely hate networking. It fills me with dread and always has done, mostly because I've always been a bit shy and so the thought of walking into a room full of strangers and starting a conversation scares me. I realized early on though, that it was an essential part of my career development and that I would have to overcome fear and shyness in order to make it work for me.
If you think you can do without networking and that your talent and skill will be enough, remember that most senior level jobs in this country are never advertised and go to people who are known to the decision makers: many other jobs are filled by people who have been recommended by friends and colleagues. So networking is vital for career progression. If you are in a start up phase, most venture capitalists and investors say they invest in people who have been introduced to them, and rarely respond to direct contact or mail shots.
Thirdly, in any aspect of business, whether you are a self employed consultant or an established business, many customers will come to you as a result of recommendations and therefore a wide network is essential to maximize your business potential.
Having told you how important it is to network, I want to share some of the do's and don'ts that I have noticed over the years. I am no expert, I hasten to point out, and consider myself to be a very mediocre networker, but I have spent many years watching people at events and learning from some top networkers. I have looked at how they join conversations and, just as importantly, how they exit from those conversations gracefully, what the best opening lines are and how long they spend with a group before moving on.
1) Decide what you want to achieve when you are attending an event. Don't go along just because there is free champagne. If possible get a guest list from the organizers before the event and highlight no more than 5 or 6 people you really want to meet and then do some background research and find out who you might know in common. Linkedin is very good for this and it creates an easy opening conversational gambit. If you don't know what your selected people look like, ask the organisers when you arrive at the event or make sure you've looked at their photo beforehand.
2) Take business cards and hand them out as appropriate. (please see the list of 'don'ts for when NOT to hand out business cards)
3) After you've met your chosen four or five people, leave the event. Don't expect to meet everybody who's there and don't overstay your welcome.
4) Follow up the next day with a polite, personal note saying how much you enjoyed meeting that particular person and mention any follow up actions you agreed in discussion the night before.
5) Open a conversation by asking a question and really listen because the people you meet will have a wealth of experience and knowledge and can offer really valuable insights. You are likely to learn and benefit much more if you ask questions than talk about yourself.
6) Look out for cues that will give you an opening to talk a bit about yourself but never launch into a monologue about yourself or your billion dollar venture idea.
1) Don't go to the event and spend the whole evening at the bar talking to your friends, nice as that may be, because you won't get anything from the opportunity. You will find that people rarely approach a group of friends catching up at the bar.
2) Although you should give out business cards selectively to people you think may be interested, don't carpet bomb your cards. The number I have seen left behind on tables and in bins at the exit would fill up the stationery shelves of WH Smiths for months.
3) Do not get overtaken with enthusiasm and whip out your business plan from your top pocket when you sniff out a potential investor. A follow up meeting is the place to do that. Do, however, have a two minute elevator pitch ready in case the opportunity arises, in order to secure that follow up meeting.
4) If it is a speaker event, don't ignore the speakers. Having been a speaker on panels and a keynote speaker many times it is really disheartening if no one talks to you afterwards.
5) Do not use the guest list to spam everyone at the event with a generic email afterwards, saying what a pleasure it was to meet them when, clearly, you didn't meet everyone. It demonstrates a lack of credibility and shallowness.
6) If you go to an event, and feel you need to go with somebody, go with one person rather than a pack. A larger group often feels emboldened to ambush unsuspecting guests en masse. It's overwhelming for them and counterproductive for you.
7) Don't talk about yourself all the time. Other people may be far more interesting.
8) Don't confuse networking with being a social media junkie, meeting everyone but forming relationships with no one. You won't be remembered in six months time and therefore none of your contacts will be worth anything to you. It is about creating genuine relationships where people remember you and your story months afterwards.
9) Don't ask for favours or a job when you first meet someone. If you request a subsequent meeting, be clear what it is you want from them and what you can give back.
10) Don't drink too much, however nervous or uncomfortable you may feel. It won't enhance your profile and prospects in any respect.
So to recap, our worst case scenario at a networking event is someone who spends all evening with mates at the bar, drinks too much, is slightly worse for wear and panics as the evening draws to a close and realises they haven't benefited from the networking event all evening. The wannabee networker then dashes around the room barging into every conversation and handing out business cards with the all the finesse of an elephant in the corps de ballet. Almost every 'don't' is encapsulated in this behaviour, potentially topped off the next day by a generic email saying how lovely it was to meet everyone. You didn't meet everyone and they don't remember you except, possibly, for your bad manners.
Focus on the 'do's and you are far more likely to be remembered and make networking work for you.
If you want to read more about the art of networking, just google the phrase and you'll find a plethora of blogs, videos and articles about the subject. I found two books particularly useful. The first is called 'The Network Effect', written by two London Business School Alumni, Tony Newton and Judith Perle. Theirs is a well written and easy to read book filled with good and bad case studies and examples. The other book is by a social media networking specialist, Heather Townsend and is called 'Business Networking: How to use the power of online and offline networking for business success'