Networking—the word itself is likely to strike fear into your soul. Unless you’re a seasoned pro, attending a session with strangers might sound like a wild idea. However, and you probably don’t need to be told this, it could help you take your career to the next level. Let’s take a look at how you can overcome some of the common mistakes and become the master of any networking scenario.
Step 1: Take a Deep Breath
The last thing you want to do is walk into a room unprepared. You might know just what you’re going to say to the people at the networking session. You might be armed with the snazziest of business cards too. However, neither of those things matter one iota unless you walk into the space looking calm, cool, and approachable.
Of course, for some it’s harder than it first sounds. Social Anxiety Disorder affects 15 million of US adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American. That equates to around 6.8% of us who are struggling with this problem on a day-to-day basis. Aside from making it difficult to talk to people and mix in social circles, it can also make people feel self-conscious and nervous in the lead-up to an event or occasion.
Whether you suffer from this disorder or simply find social situations a little intimidating (hey, it happens to the best of us!) preparing is the most effective course of action. Before you even think about entering a networking session, you should take a moment to ground yourself and ensure that you are as calm and collected as can be.
It might be as simple as taking a few deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose, hold for a second or two, and then slowly breathe out through your mouth. This technique works especially well if you’re prone to panic. Research from the Southern Methodist University suggests that normalizing your breathing could be the key to curbing momentary anxiety.
Step 2: Make your approach
Let’s take a moment to deal with one of the most stressful parts of networking—approaching people. This is made particularly hard since at networking sessions people typically stand in groups. If you have trouble approaching one person, heading over to a cluster may be your worst nightmare.
It’s crucial to remind yourself that these people are not old friends, but strangers just like you. What’s more, the primary aim of a networking event is to get to know new people. With that in mind, here’s how you can approach a group the right way.
Evaluate the situation
Nobody likes to be interrupted when they’re mid-flow in conversation. Barging into a group while they’re in the middle of something won’t win you any points. Before heading over, take a moment to evaluate the situation and see what’s happening. If you find that the people are locked in an intimate-looking chat, perhaps give it a moment or two.
Wait for a window
There’s a real skill to choosing the right time to approach a group. Wait until there is a noticeable gap in the conversation. You should find that the people in the crowd stop talking and take a moment to either sip their drinks, check their phones, or glance around the room. When you see these signs, it’s time to make your move.
Make eye contact (and smile)
Right before you head over to the group, let them know you’re coming. Doing so will make the whole encounter easier—for both you and them. One way in which you can get this right is to make eye contact and smile at them. This move shows confidence and lets them know that you’re interested in joining.
Since you’re the one who has joined the group, you need to make the first move. Introduce yourself and let them know what you do but keep it brief. The aim here is to show more interest in other people than you do yourself. Let them ask questions, should they want to know more about you, but don’t forcibly tell them all there is to know about you.
Ask about the previous conversation
If you’ve just caught the tail-end of a conversation, don’t be afraid to ask what it was all about. Showing that you’re intrigued by what the people have to say here is an excellent way to make them feel comfortable around you. Give them a chance to talk and truly take the time to listen to what they have to say. It could be invaluable information.
Focus on your body language
Most people aren’t aware of their body language but perhaps you should be. When you’re networking, the message that you send out has to be completely under your control. Believe it or not, nonverbal communication will play a huge role in how people react to you when you first speak to them. Make sure that you are open (i.e. that you don’t have your arms folded) and control the emotional signals on your face.
Step 3: Be an ‘Active’ Networker
You might have the basic networking routine down. You walk into the room, speak to people, give them your card, and walk away. While you may not realize it, all of the above is nothing short of a waste of time, unless you act upon these connections.
To get an expert opinion on this matter, let’s take a look at Mark E. Sackett, an award-winning designer, producer, director, and business owner. After amassing more than 30 years experience in the creative field, one which relies heavily on networking and connections, he has come up with a novel idea – the art of active networking.
In a guest talk for a TEDx event, Sackett explained how his theory worked to the audience. Many of us already understand the basics of networking, but his take on it is a little different to what you may have encountered before. Put simply, it relies on four questions that you should ask someone when you first meet them.
Who are you?
Of course, this is the natural leading point when you’re meeting people. You want to know their name so that, at the very least, you can call them by it. What’s more, should you find that you make a genuine connection with this person, you need to know whom to look up. It’s basic stuff but, in the heat of a networking session-induced panic, some forget it.
What do you do for a living (or what do you want to do)?
Most people take the time to ask others what they do. What you’re really asking at this point is ‘Are you useful to me?’ However, Sackett recommends that you give this time-old opener a little twist by adding an extra clause to it. Asking the person what they’d prefer to do for a living, if they could change things, is a great way to get them to open up.
As he puts it, all too many of us are not working in roles about which we are passionate and that’s a real shame. When you start conversing with someone about what gets them out of bed each morning, you might just find that you unlock a hidden side of them.
While that may not be useful to you in an instant, getting to know someone on that deeper level holds great value. It’s how you connect with them and show the person that you care about more than merely what they can do for you right now.
Why are you specifically here today?
The main reason that people go to networking sessions is obvious—they want to sell something. Whether it’s themselves, a product, or a service, they have come to the networking session with the purpose of promoting something. When you ask the direct question of why they are there, they will cut right to the chase and tell you.
Of course, there’s every chance that the person came to the networking session for another reason. Perhaps their boss instructed them that they had to. Perhaps they happened to be in town for a meeting and wanted to pass some time in a productive way. The answer that you get when you ask this question may reveal more than just the person’s intentions. It could tell you about their life and goals too.
What are you most passionate about?
Finally, Sackett talks about the question that few people ask but everybody wants to answer. Questioning someone on their passions may sound a little cheesy but it could be the key to getting them to talk. You can even delve a little further into this topic and ask what legacy the person is hoping to leave. You might be surprised at what they say.
Step 4: Nail Your Elevator Pitch
If you’ve never heard of an elevator pitch, let me enlighten you. This networking tool is a way of condensing your introduction to people. Imagine you’re in an elevator with another person and you want to tell them what you do. You only have around 20 seconds before they get out of the elevator onto their floor. That means that whatever you say, it should be short, concise, and to the point. Here’s how to get it right.
Make a draft
First of all, you need to get something down on paper. Write down what you do, what services you offer, and what makes you unique. You should have all of the above firmly in your head already but writing things down will help you to cement them.
Edit out the jargon
Look at what you’ve written. Imagine that you’re someone who doesn’t understand your industry at all – a general member of the public. Are there any terms you’ve used that people won’t understand? If the answer is yes, edit them out and replace them with plain English. Nobody likes someone who speaks in technical terms or jargon. Trust me.
Give it a headline
Now that you’ve got the basics written down, let’s talk about the order. You need to put the most important and interesting pieces of information first. It might help to give your elevator pitch a headline. What are you trying to tell people here? Lead with that. For example, if you work in personal accountancy, you could say “I help people to better understand their finances.”
When you have a clear and concise elevator pitch, you need to memorize it. Seriously. Practice saying it out loud. (If there’s any phrases or words that don’t feel like natural conversation, now’s your time to change them!) Repeat them pitch to yourself; to your friends; and to anybody else who will listen.
After you’ve perfected your pitch, it’s time to take it for a test drive. When you’re at a networking session and someone asks you about who you are and what you do, you can whip out your speech. Don’t panic if it doesn’t feel 100% natural at first. In time, you will be able to recite this short sound-bite effortlessly at any given moment.
Warning: Rookie Networking Mistakes to Avoid
If you’re completely new to networking, it’s only natural that you might make a few mistakes along the way. To save you the trouble, here are three of the most common rookie mistakes and why you should avoid them (at all costs!).
1. Making it all about YOU
There’s no doubt about it, one of the major reasons for attending a networking session is to promote yourself. However, being completely shameless about it will get you nowhere fast. If you spend the entire session talking about yourself in a manner closely resembling that of a pesky cold call, you’re going to annoy people more than you intrigue them.
2. Being a wallflower
Now is no time to be shy or coy. When you walk into a networking session, every second counts. That doesn’t mean that you have to move from group to group like a butterfly, but you need to at least make an effort to talk to people. Otherwise, you’ll simply end up wasting an evening around a group of perfect strangers.
3. Failing to follow up
You’re likely to leave any given networking session with a stack full of business cards. What you do with them matters. Don’t simply throw them in a drawer and forget about them. Follow up. Go through the stack and figure out whom you’d like to stay in contact with. Then, send them a quick follow-up email or drop them a line.
You already know that you should be networking so give it a go. Here’s a secret: The more often you do it, the easier it will be. Use this guide to help you along the way and keep at it. Before you know it, you will be a master of networking in your own right.