Everyone needs to network. And I mean everyone.
What determines whether a drug dealer dies or becomes a kingpin?
Yup —the size of his network :).
Whether you’re trying to develop your personal career or forge new business relationships, making offline, personal connections has become even more critical as online social networking becomes the norm. “Networking” is a buzzword that many of us have a serious love/hate relationship with. Sure — we all want to expand our network by meeting new people in our industry, but actually meeting them can feel like a middle school dance all over again … a painfully, painfully awkward middle school dance.
The web has given us ways to navigate around uncomfortable networking. 40% of people feel more comfortable engaging with people online than in person. While reaching out to new people may be much less intimidating when we’re sitting behind a screen, face-to-face networking is an extremely valuable skill to hone if you want to build strong relationships with potential investors, managers, employees, partners, clients, etc.
This guide will help you navigate those uncomfortable face-to-face networking situations so the next time you step into a room of potential connections, you’ll be as cool as a cucumber and ready to dive right into relationship-building conversations.
1) Ask Yourself, “Wait, What Am I Doing Here?”
Next time you’re going to an event, ask yourself: “Who do I want to meet, and why?” Certain events show the event’s attendee list on the registration page. If a guest-list like this is available, take a moment to scan it. See a person or company on the list you’ve been hoping to connect with? Look up the guest’s LinkedIn profile to learn a little bit more about them so you can seek them out at the event.
Let’s say you’re the owner of a successful lawn-mowing business. Your business could benefit from finding a new source of potential customers, so you figure a great way to do that would be to start building some co-marketing relationships that you can use to reach a new audience of potential customers. If this is the case, you may want to consider spending some of your time at the event seeking out people whose business is complementary to yours — perhaps a home improvement vendor — with which you can build relationships that lead to possible co-marketing opportunities.
Do you want to spread awareness about a new project you’re starting? Do you want to meet a strategic investor who can fund your venture? Do you want to find potential new hires for open positions at your company?
Having a clear goal in mind will make networking less ambiguous and lead to more effective connections.
2) Not Knowing How to Start a Conversation
Broaching a big or small group can be intimidating, but with the right approach, you can join in on an existing conversation or start your own successfully. Ease into the evening by introducing yourself to one person who is also flying solo and looking for someone to talk to. Your first connection at an event is your gateway to meeting more people. Maybe they came with friends they can introduce you to, or maybe you’ll decide to break into bigger groups together. Whoever you approach first, relieve some of the awkwardness with informed, relevant conversation starters to get in the swing of things together.
3) Introducing Yourself to Someone Who Is a Way Bigger Deal Than You
We sometimes walk into networking events with high hopes of meeting the CEO of a company we admire, or the author of a book that kick-started our career. We’re so thrilled to be in the same place as them, but suddenly, you spot them across the room and become nervous, awkward, and who knows — maybe even a little bit sweaty. So how can you successfully strike up a conversation with this mini-celebrity from your industry’s People magazine without making a total fool of yourself?
First and foremost: Make sure you have purpose. Butting into their conversation to tell them you love their work or admire their approach to business will not invite stimulating conversation. In fact, it’s more likely to evoke a simple “thank you.” Consider what it is about this person that resonated with you, and tie it in to your work, projects, or philosophy. Approach them with confidence, introduce yourself not as a fan, but as an equal (because you are), and say something thought provoking that they can relate to, like, “Your marketing applications for nonprofits was helpful for me at my last job, but I’m transitioning into a job in the financial industry. Would you change your marketing approach if you were me?”
4) When Conversation Loses Steam
Often, we meet someone and exchange our name, company, job title, and where we grew up in about three minutes. Then we smile, look at the ground, and say something like “I love your tie.”
When the small talk is up, it’s easy for the conversation to go south. Learn to avoid this by making them the topic of conversation. If you are on the verge of an awkward silence try asking the person to elaborate on something they mentioned – “Tell me about that.”
You may be thinking, how can I make connections if we just talk about them the whole time? And to that I would say: showing genuine interest in another person can say more about you than talking about yourself could. Besides, if a person doesn’t reciprocate the behavior and encourage you to tell them about yourself afterward, then they probably weren’t a valuable connection to begin with. Next time a conversation is flailing, ask for them to elaborate and you’ll find talking points you’ll be able to expand on and run with.
5) When You Want to Ask for Something Without Scaring Someone Off
The highlight of networking events we all fantasize about is leaving with a concrete exchange that will move our business or career forward. Maybe it’s a job offer, getting an investor on board, locking down a recommendation letter, or landing a client you’ve been after for months. Whatever the highlight, it isn’t going to fall in our lap. We can play all the right cards to set us up for a the big moment, but a time will come when we need to put ourselves out there and firmly express what we want. How can we do this without sounding aggressive?
Consider your answer to the classic job interview question “Why should we hire you over the other candidates?” You come up with a true, succinct, humble, and exemplary answer of why you are the right person for the job. Your approach to getting what you want from networking isn’t all that different, except it’s important to express your flexibility. In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg references a time a woman approached her asking for a job by asking what her core business problems were and how she could fix them. This combination of flexibility and confidence in getting the job done is a brilliant way to frame your next big ask. Be firm on what you want, but be clear that what you want is mutually beneficial.
6) Exiting a Conversation Gracefully
It’s important to remember that networking isn’t like speed-dating. The goal isn’t to meet as many people as you can — it’s to make valuable connections. While it’s important not to rush through conversations for this reason, there are times when we need to jump ship. Whether you’re chatting with someone who won’t let you get a word in or someone who is wasting time whining about their boss, you should still be polite when ending the conversation.
If there’s a lull in conversation, say “Please let me know how that project goes, I’d love to see it and hear how it turns out.” This will show you were engaged, and though it ends the conversation in the moment, they won’t feel offended. Or, ask them “Have you seen anyone from [company name] tonight? I’ve been meaning to chat with them.” This will kindly express that it’s important to you to expand your network.
Plan on attending a networking event soon? Leave awkwardness at the door by walking in with full confidence.
Happy Tuesday & Happy Selling!
P.S. If you are a business owner and interested in joining a local business networking group please drop me a line…