The Nays and Nos of Networking
It’s generally accepted across the business world that networking in an essential and beneficial way to meet other business owners, build connections and spread the word about our offering. Sounds straight forward enough, so why does the idea of networking cause most of us to break out in hives and send us running for the hills? What is it about networking that can pose a challenge for even the most convivial and social among us?
Learning From My Failure
It took a while, and some excellent advice from those expert in networking to learn how to approach networking with integrity, and to put my focus on where it needed to be; on the simple social connection with other people who want to share their stories about what their business means to them.
Learning to stop worrying about selling, or how many business cards I’d swapped, allowed me to start enjoying the experience and do what I love doing, which is listening to people talk about what’s important to them, and of course having the opportunity to talk about what’s important to me too. Remembering that people buy people, and that trust is built over time, with care; not in an instant, while you stand awkwardly around a high table, with a half-eaten biscuit in your hand. It can start there, with a genuine desire to connect, but it’s only the beginning of the journey.
The Business Card Swapping Game
My first few forays into the world of networking were a disaster. I remember being invited along to a networking meeting the first Christmas I was in business and worrying first about how to read the list of attendees and identify who I could target to speak to. And what was appropriate to wear? Should it be strict business wear, or, as it was the silly season, something a little more casual? Was my name tag upside down or eschew ways? Beyond the initial hello and introduction, what to say next? Then, should I bring along business cards, and if so, when was the right time to whip them out?
As I worried about how I’d come across, and whether I’d come away with contacts or potential clients, I failed completely to put my focus on where it needed to be; on the person standing in front of or sitting beside me. It was like I’d completely forgotten the basic rules of relating and instead was only thinking about what the interaction could mean for my business. Looking back, I think it was also a lack of self-confidence, and a lack of awareness of how business really works. Whatever it was, it meant coming away exhausted from networking events feeling socially awkward, and that somehow I was missing the mark.
Quality not Quantity
I knew I needed to change how I approached networking and the first step was to change my metrics for success. I decided that a genuine connection with even one person at a networking event, would be deemed a success. I still did a quick scan of the list of attendees, but less to target and more to get a quick introduction to who was in the room, and to make that initial ‘hello’ easier, if I did get to meet them.
I started to trust again in my ability to have meaningful conversations with people, and just because the topic of that conversation is based around our business, does not change how I interact with them.
The second step was to remind myself that people love to talk about what’s important to them, so starting a conversation with any question, or one like, ‘What attracted you to this business/job/role/sector in the first place?’ gives me the opportunity to lean in, listen and learn rather than worry about when to offer my business card. If it’s a conversation with the right person, they’ll come back with a question and before you know it, you’ll both have enough information to gauge if you can offer support to each other’s business in any way.
Accept that networking is always going to be a little awkward initially as our brains are wired to scan for danger when we come across an unfamiliar face and when that’s a sea of unfamiliar faces, our brains are shouting ‘run for cover!’. That initial discomfort is natural and is to be expected.
Give yourself a moment to ground yourself – taking a few conscious breaths can work wonders – and scan the room for the sign of a friendly or non-threatening face. If there’s none to be seen initially, find yourself a safe but visible vantage point where you can gather yourself until an opportunity to approach someone, or be approached, comes along. And remember that, no matter how confident or relaxed others may appear, that awkwardness is being felt by us all on some level. That comforting thought alone can relax us enough to get in there and get networking!