The term ‘networking’ for some of us incites waves of terror, cold sweats and an inability to even remember our own name when asked the inevitable, ‘And tell me about yourself…’ Despite the general consensus that networking is nothing but awkward, we are told time and again that the practice is imperative to our success. Bob Burg states, “All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.” And so off we go, RSVP-ing to another networking event, hoping that the food will be better than last time and someone there will think we have a trustworthy face.
So how can we reframe the notion of networking to be an enjoyable and engaging experience, and avoid standing alone in the dark corner downing canapes and lukewarm chardonnay? The Women in Business Network suggest replacing the word networking in our vocabularies altogether – instead using the term ‘connecting’. “Connecting is about becoming an excellent listener; being authentic and genuine, and building the relationship rather than the short-term transaction.” If we approach an event with an open mindset, are prepared, and remain authentic and genuine, consciously connecting with people will inevitably lead to nurtured and lasting networks.
But what if you work in a niche industry, or live in a regional or remote area with few networking opportunities? No excuses – you still have to play along! Mickey Penzer, writing for Forbes.com, recommends joining a professional organisation to delve deeper into the industry and showcase your expertise in the field. Building your personal credibility (even through a savvy online presence) can greatly expand your networks. Penzer also advocates giving back, “Through offering assistance to the various organisations you join, whether by helping with planning, recruitment or even making connections with other complementary organisations, you will enhance the organisation and your own standing within it.”
We all know one of those lucky extroverted types who revels in chatting to a room full of strangers, oblivious to any form of insecurity or shyness. And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to just fake it ‘til you make it, because that never works! For those slightly more introverted (or just socially inept like myself), start small – remember to smile, ask questions, listen carefully and use people’s names. Have a wingman/woman, bring your business cards, and never forget to follow up, advises Meredith Levinson at CIO. There’s no point in the exercise at all if you don’t follow through and continue the relationship. Others find it more productive to attend alone, as it forces you to chat to new people and make conversation without the safety net of a friend nearby.
With all new experiences, it’s key to find out what strategies work best for you. Depending on the event itself, your purpose may differ and so will your approach. Remember that we are always networking whether it be at an event, at a friend’s dinner party, or grabbing our morning coffee, so these are skills we already have – we’re just adapting them slightly. Most importantly, be yourself. And if all else fails, go ahead and dive into the canapes like no one’s watching. I’ll meet you there.