Networking – a bane or a benefit?

If you’re like me and thousands of other professionals, the idea of networking brings up a feeling of dread. And lots of questions. Question number one on my list is, “Do I really need to do this?”

The mere mention of networking can bring a sense of panic to many an entrepreneur. And yet, it’s a proven route to finding camaraderie and help from those who’ve been where you hope to be. So, what’s to be done if you’re networking-adverse? There are clearly defined steps to take and along with a little moxie, they can carry you closer to your business goals.

If the mention of networking gives you sweaty palms or a headache, concentrate on the benefits it can bring. First of all, it can open up a world of relationships both with those similarly situated and with those who could very well be your next client. People like to do business with people in their circle of acquaintances, so try thinking of networking as an opportunity to get your name and face out where potential clients hang out. And thinking of those benefits will support your foray into the world of professional socialization.

How to network in the real world

Think about what you can offer to the other person – advice, mentorship, resources, introductions. Even offering gratitude or recognition can convey a sense of caring about your conversation partner, according to Harvard Business Review’s article, “Learn to love networking” by Tiziana Casciaro, Francesca Gino, and Maryam Kouchaki. Networking driven by shared interests feels more authentic according to the same article. Share your unique insights and knowledge. Think more about what you can give than what you can get, advises the article. “Any work activity becomes more attractive when it’s linked to a higher goal.”

Networking advice and tips

So you have an upcoming networking event. What can you do in preparation? If possible, get to know the event organizers so you can get an idea of whom might be attending. Learn about their business by closely reviewing their website. See if you can find them on LinkedIn. Knowing a bit about someone can provide a great conversation starter.

Have your business cards in one place and easily accessible. Likewise, you’ll want to have a spot for the cards you collect. You’ll need these to send notes to those with whom you’d like to know better. But don’t wait too long. After a day or two, they may have difficulty bringing your face and conversation to mind. And by all means, get business cards from the event organizers. Send them a short email of thanks so they can remember you.

When you first arrive at your venue, stand out of the way and scope out the scene. See anyone you know? You may want to focus on them first. Talking with them can work to loosen your tongue and may even lead to an introduction to someone new to you.

While you’re checking out the scene, look for a good spot to stand. Inside or outside the entranceway isn’t normally your best position, because those just entering quite likely have other goals in mind than standing in a doorway, blocking access for others. And although most people may head to the table of appetizers, don’t stand there. You don’t want to block their access to refreshments, nor do you want to begin a conversation with someone who has their mouth full. And so much the worse if you’re holding a loaded plate yourself. There’s no way to shake hands, exchange business cards, or speak when your mouth’s full of food.

“The best place to stand is right where people leave when exiting the bar. This way, they have a drink in their hand and they are ready to mingle,” advises Vanessa Van Edwards in her article, “How to Network: 18 Easy Networking Tips You Can Use Today.”

Opening a dialogue

Ok, you have a new prospect’s attention. What do you say? Think about them first. People love to talk about themselves and will be glad to find someone willing to listen. See if you can learn of any needs they may have. Ask about their business and the role they play in it. This is a good time to offer your help, either by promising to introduce them to someone who might need their services or by providing some advice yourself.

Be sure to be ready with your elevator speech. You know, something short and compelling for someone you’d like to know better. Make sure you can quickly state the function of your business and your role in it. But while memorizing your key points can be a big help, you’ll want what you say to roll off your tongue. This is no time for stammers or long, empty moments. Of course, avoid anything one-way. Think of them first, and tailor your conversation to something they need. Save your monologues for times more suitable.

The new normal makes handshakes unlikely. Besides the elbow bump, use plenty of eye contact. Be friendly. And by all means don’t linger if you notice the other’s eyes circling the room, or other signals that they don’t appear interested in what you have to say. There’s likely to be others who will be interested in what you have to offer, so don’t waste time by lingering with someone who’s not likely to fit into your world.

Networking opportunities

Look for professional groups in your geographic area, considering membership fees and the cost-to-benefit ratio. Chambers of commerce are good but can get pricey depending upon your company size. A chamber in a mid-sized city in the North Central Florida area starts around $400 a year while one close-by rural area begins at $60 for a sole proprietor. You can find other communities of like-minded peers in the Rotary, Toastmasters, or through volunteering with SCORE. Groups like the local Lions Club offer a different sort of networking. There you’ll find a mix of retirees, active professionals, and community residents interested in helping a charitable organization succeed. All these groups have membership fees.

Then there’s the online community. LinkedIn offers thousands of networking groups. Joining relevant groups and then actively participating in them can keep you up-to-date on the latest trends in your field, provide new contacts, and lead to business opportunities. You can follow or join groups and get to know other members through commenting often on their members’ status updates and articles.

Networking conversation starters

Still stumbling over what to say to strangers? Museum Hack offers a list of conversation starters in their article, “The Only List of Icebreaker Questions You’ll Ever Need." The article contains more than 190 starters in categories such as virtual events, meetings, situations where you’re looking for a humorous opening, as well as questions for beginning conversations with kids. You can ask for the best advice your conversation partner has ever received, what they most appreciate about living in the 21st century, or what they’d most like to eliminate from their daily routine.

There’s plenty of other sites offering different questions; check them out and quite possibly you won’t lack for ways to start a dialogue during your next networking event.

Can’t stop dreading the idea of networking? Me neither. Although it can be difficult to lessen your foreboding, look for opportunities to get to know and learn from strangers. And remember the observation of poet William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.”

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