How you can take the pain out of networking…and make it work for your business or career
Research from the British Library shows that we don’t like networking. Around half (51%) of us describe it as an ‘uncomfortable’ part of our job. But the truth is networking works. Four out of five British adults who network report benefits that include making useful contacts, getting good advice and even increasing sales.
As our founder, Sarah Haran, says, “I myself hate the very thought of having to go out and network. I honestly cringe inside at the thought of having to walk into a network meeting where I do not know anybody. To get those first words out are the hardest, and I often find myself clinging to the very first person that says, “Hello” to me! I am sure I am not alone!”
According to the research, only 38% of British adults have attended a networking event, meaning if you’re one of those who have – and do it well - you could be giving yourself a real advantage in business and in life.
So, what are the secrets to good networking?
Don’t think of it as ‘networking’. If you’re an introvert or hate the idea of networking, this word can conjure up all sorts of anxieties and awkward scenarios. Jon Levy, a human behavioural scientist explains in an online interview, “traditional networking “is about me, me, me getting to know as many people as possible for my personal benefit.”
He recommends instead that we think of networking as building community and creating mutual benefit all around:
“If I meet somebody extraordinary, I don’t want them to know just me; I want them to be friends with my friends and my friends’ friends so that they get integrated into my community and they have a larger impact,” Levy says. “Fundamentally, we call a network a community when it has enough connections between its people.”
Keith Ferrazzi, author of ‘Never Eat Alone’ agrees. He’s not a fan of the term ‘networking’ and doesn’t use it himself. Instead, he prefers looking at it as a strategy to help you establish long-term healthy business relationships.
He points out that nobody can get ahead in business, or in life, on their own:
“To achieve your goals, it matters less about how smart you are, how much innate talent you’re born with or even where you came from or how much you started out with. Sure, they’re important but they mean little if you don’t understand one thing: You can’t get there alone. In fact, you can’t get very far at all.”
Give before you take. In his classic business tome, Ferrazzi hammers home that the key to building long and successful business relationships is to lead with generosity:
“Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you but what you can do for others.”
On top of this, Ferrazzi’s practical advice includes: don’t keep score, build a network before you need it, be useful, connect mutual acquaintances, always keep in touch and expand your circle. His book also includes a section on how to be good at the art of small talk!
Do your research and know what you want ahead of time. First off, keep up to date on relevant events through your industry and trade blogs or publications, but also search on sites like Eventbrite and Meetup. Finding only the most relevant events will help you cut down on time-wasting.
Then do your research, find out who’s going to be there ahead of time and check if there’s anyone who can help you with the specific connections, contacts and suppliers or support that you need.
Get clear as well on why you’re networking and what you want from it. Kelly Hoey, author of ‘Build Your Dream Network’ said in an interview with CNBC:
“I always like to know why I am in the ‘networking’ room before I enter the room. It may be to gain information or hear a particular speaker or to seek out a specific contact. Knowing why you have made the choice to be in the room is the first step in easing the pain of networking,”
Keep it informal and interesting. Entrepreneur and British Library ambassador Shazia Awan explained to The Guardian the importance of toning down your “hard sell” tendencies while networking:
“The worst thing you can do when networking is turn it into a sales pitch. Networking should be about building a quick rapport – it should be informal, brief, interesting and leave people wanting to know more. If you do come across a potential customer or someone you think you could work with, pop that in a simple email to them a day or two after meeting up.”
Perfect your elevator pitch and other tips. Experts agree that having a short way to describe yourself prepared can help to ease anxiety around starting conversations. But there are other tips too. Try holding your drink in your left hand so you’re free to shake hands with your right, for example.
Rasheed Ogunlaru, a business coach who runs events on networking with the British Library, suggests that having a plan for leaving conversations can help smooth social anxiety too. He advises “a polite way to address is this is to warmly and genuinely say: “It’s been good to meet you. I better pop around and meet a few more people before the end of the evening.”
And above all, follow up! Ideally in the 48 hours after the event to make sure you consolidate all your hard work.
There are no shortcuts to networking and putting the work in over time, but these tips should help ease the pain and help you – and your community – get ahead in business and your careers.