‘Street-smart’ business people learn the importance of maintaining good professional relationships, largely through networking, which is defined as the creation, development and use of personal contacts for mutual benefit or the benefit of others. Adept networking is a ‘win-win’ activity – producing a positive result for you and the people you meet.
Types of networking
There are several types of networking opportunities for you:
- Arrange periodically to meet over coffee or lunch with friends and other contacts within the public relations profession and other professions
- Join your professional association and mixing with peers at functions and events organized by the association
- Join other professional bodies such as (eg in my profession it would be the International Association of Business Communicators [IABC], or the Public Relations Society of America [PRSA]), relevant chambers of commerce and the national marketing institute, or attending functions of other similar bodies as a guest of contacts or friends
- Work for committees within your profession and for charities, arts organizations, hospitals, social welfare organizations, etc, where you can achieve good deeds and are noticed by the right people at the same time
- Attend general industry functions and events, eg public business breakfasts hosted by various business associations
Change to a ‘givers gain’ philosophy
Unfortunately, most people see networking only from their own selfish point of view – as a ‘one-way street’ to gain information for their own benefit without any real thought about reciprocation to others. This selfish type of attitude is counter-productive.
The way to approach networking events is adopt a ‘givers gain’ philosophy in which people see their role as freely seeking to help others with information or news with no expectation of a return. They have the view that the more they give, the more they will receive at some stage in the future. “What goes around comes around.” Or you can call it karma.
Networking and selling don’t mix. It is bad form to only talk with people who can be useful to you. And trying to sell at such events will only make people avoid you.
Diligent networking is a discipline that is guaranteed to pay great dividends over your career, and so you are strongly advised to invest time in it as part of your essential activities now and in the future.
Practical tips for successful networking
It seems an obvious step to carry business cards at all times, but you would be surprised at how many people don’t. Your card is your silent salesperson, reminding people of you after the event.
More importantly: other people’s business cards. As soon as possible after the function write the name of the function and the date it was held on the back of each business card to jog your memory as your collection of business cards grows. Review your business card collection and make an effort to keep in touch with those people with whom you feel you have struck a positive chord. Treat them as stakeholders and employ a personal stakeholder relations program of contact with them.
Try to meet 5 new people at any gathering. It may be safer and a lot easier to remain with friends, but the purpose of networking is to widen your circle of contacts.
Networking is an active behavior. Being a wallflower is not effective in a business situation. Make an effort to walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself.
Put yourself in new networking situations regularly. Networking opens doors you never knew were there. You can make contacts for future career possibilities or pick up useful information.
When a sit-down meal is involved, try to position yourself next to people you haven’t met rather than huddling with your friends.
The best approach
- Be helpful and other-directed. Maintaining a “What’s in it for me?” attitude will severely limit your networking possibilities. Take the focus off yourself and notice that you no longer feel self-conscious or shy. See what you can do to help those you meet. Make suggestions and introduce them to others who join your conversation.
- Involve. Use the classic “feel, felt, found” formula (“I know how you feel, I felt the same way, and this is what I found”) to involve yourself in the person’s message before you deliver your own.
- Be concise. When introducing yourself to individuals or to the group, describe what you do simply and briefly in plain language.
- Remember: networking is not sales! It’s about developing relationships with people. Out of these relationships can come the things you want or need, such as a new job or more business.
Take an interest in others
You can ensure no awkward gaps in conversation by asking questions to get the other person to speak. People would rather talk than listen. Try to learn about the person you’re talking to. Find common interests and get a clear idea of their job. Some helpful questions are listed below.
I have written two articles about small talk and making a first impression on others. Worth reading: “Make a great first impression on other people every time” and “How you can master small talk and make a big impression”
Always listen. Listen to learn as much as you can about everybody you meet. You should listen to find out what needs you can help fill for a fellow networker. Listen for the opportunities to match the needs of one person with the products or services of another – sometimes your own. The more you listen, the less you talk about yourself, and the more you will be considered a wise and thoughtful person.
Many people say they hate industry or networking events. They often find other attendees to be less than welcoming if they try to join one of the conversation groups. It can be a lonely experience even for an outgoing, assertive public relations person!
Great questions to break the ice
Here are some good questioning techniques that help to break the ice without being too flippant or serious. These are not designed to be probing or sales-oriented in any way. They are all friendly and fun to answer and will tell you something about the way that person thinks.
- “How did you get your start in the … business?”
- “What do you enjoy most about your work?”
- “How is your company different from the competition?”
- “What significant changes have you seen take place in your industry over time?”
- “What do you see as the trends in your industry?”
- “What ways have you found to be the most effective for promoting your business?”
Best-practice networking would involve sending a short note to someone who has exchanged their business card at a function. Two or three sentences are sufficient – along the lines of:
“I was glad to have met you at the (name of) function on Thursday evening and was interested to hear your views on (whatever it was). Your comments gave me new insight into (whatever it was).
“I am pleased to enclose a copy of the (information) that I mentioned to you. If you would like to discuss it further, don’t hesitate to call me on (telephone number)”
One of the biggest surprises to drop at a networking function is to say, “How do I know if someone I am talking to is a good prospect for you?” At so many networking activities, people are notorious for blatantly sniffing out new business possibilities for themselves. They tend to stand in the group constantly scanning the room while you are talking. It is rare to find someone taking an interest ‘for mutual benefit or the benefit of others.’ Practitioners who use this line and follow it up in a genuine way afterwards will see unexpected windfalls come their way..