Networking is too often thought of as an activity to either dread or endure. Even the dictionary makes it sound ambiguous or uninspiring:
Interact with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.
But, I have a confession to make. I genuinely like networking.
In my experience, networking is always a bit like a fitness regime or tackling a 500-piece monkey jigsaw. Once you get started, you get into a flow, you feel good about it and you become better at it.
Good communication with others in your business sector is vital. Building up a cross-sector network, creating opportunities for shared information – some immediately useful and some slow-burning – is equally vital. It broadens the scope, boosts knowledge and exposes you to new potential opportunities.
Networking skills can be sharpened with practice and investing some time to consider how to make the most of a networking opportunity will not only make the experience more enjoyable, you might also make a new business lead or see a gap in the market to go after.
Every event is an opportunity to practice your skills
I’ve been to plenty of throwaway networking events, that could be considered as a total waste of time. Even though you’ve arrived and it becomes evident that decent business leads aren’t going to happen, try to stick around and speak to those in the room. This is an ideal opportunity to practice your pitch and engage new people.
Remember that people are people and they want to talk. It is true that you never know where a conversation will lead. Recently I almost left a room, then I ended up speaking to one more delegate. We had a shared technology interest and we’ll be back in touch.
Be the best version of yourself and have a clear agenda
The first step at these events is a good introduction – with regards to yourself, as well as the business you are representing. This is particularly vital at speed networking events. If you haven’t been speed networking, it is basically speed dating for business and involves pitching yourself and your business up to 30 times an hour to different people.
Whether you are attending a speed networking event or a standard networking event, you will gain a lot of confidence by practising your elevator statement in advance. Make sure you are able to articulate what your role is, details of the wider business, and what your objectives are. Have a clear purpose and set yourself some objectives for each event to get the most out of the time you are putting into it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
There can be lots to learn at these events, about what you should say, what you don’t want to say and it is a useful gauge of mood, market conditions and opportunities in the area you live and work.
In Aberdeen, it has proven to be vital to get out there in this way. During the oil and gas downturn, taking a mood sample in the town became a standard practice at every evening event or business breakfast. “What was the mood in the room?” or “was it positive?” became common questions from colleagues on return to the office.
Recently, the industry is largely confident that the oil price has improved for the foreseeable future. The worst is over, but with an air of determination that the hard work to stay profitable and maintain transparency must continue. We can only know this for certain by speaking to a range of people close to the industry and asking them how they are getting on and what their views are.
A little preparation goes a long way
Like any meeting, preparation is useful ahead of networking. Discuss with team colleagues what you want to say, arrange a delegate list and research topics of interest. Like good practice at a conference or exhibition, go there with a target list of people in mind.
Meet new people but also return to individuals you know, or companies you worked with before – team members and roles change. Someone who perhaps wasn’t in need of your support, had another supplier or just didn’t have any budget in the past, might be interested now.
An important rule for when speaking to others is to just be yourself.
The small details really do count in these interactions. Just like with social contacts, remember their hobbies, what they do and perhaps something about their home life. Try to connect as a person first, not just a business contact.
Make a lasting impression and a lasting connection
Finally, remember the follow-up. Every business should have a set of credentials or case studies to hand (see ours here) or send a tailored email to your new contacts. Remember to make the time for that second or third conversation. In business, it can take up to 18 months to convert from acquaintance to client.
It’s crucial not to become disheartened. With the right strategy and a bit of time, the pieces will fall into place.