I am constantly surprised by how often I’m working with clients and the issue of networking comes up. In all the coaching – and group training – I’ve done around this issue, I’ve noticed that, broadly, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy networking and those who loathe it. But there is one thing both groups have in common: most people don’t feel like they get much out of the experience beyond a glass of wine or beer and a handful of business cards from people they’ll probably never see again.
There’s something sadly ironic in the fact that children trade Pokemon cards with more enthusiasm than most adults exchange business cards while networking. But I think the key is that the children go into the exchange with two things that most adults lack in the scenario: confidence and purpose.
Networking with Purpose
When you attend a networking event, why do you go? Do you enjoy the social interaction? Is it merely on the agenda for the conference you’re attending so you’re just following the schedule? Did a colleague drag you along as a “wingman”? Alternatively, maybe you’ve been more “task-oriented,” and told yourself you have to meet three new people and then you’re allowed to leave.
Ultimately, whether positive or negative in feeling, none of these approaches make networking valuable. So how can you make networking a useful and positive experience… and do it with comfort and confidence?
Here’s a simple rule of thumb: Networking is simply planting the seeds for a new relationship. It doesn’t have to result in an immediate financial transaction, but the purpose is to meet someone that you can then build a long-term relationship with.
The key is that you never know when there will be a reason for you to contact them – or for them to contact you. Maybe you’ll read an article that you think they’ll appreciate and you send them a link. Maybe you’ll look through their contact list on LinkedIn and see someone you’d like them to introduce you to. Or maybe they are chatting with someone else at another networking event a month later who just so happens to need your services, and they can make the introduction.
There’s a terrific book called The Go-Giver that epitomizes this perspective. It’s an easy read in parable form that you can skim in a weekend, and will clarify both how to do it and why.
Networking with Confidence
Interestingly enough, one of the biggest stumbling blocks people face is not why they should talk to someone, but simply the mechanics of how to start the conversation.
First, it’s important to distinguish the difference between networking and small talk. I just had a conversation with a client earlier this week in which she shared that she dreaded an upcoming event and said, “I just don’t’ know how to make small talk all night.” When I suggested that small talk wasn’t required at all, she stared blankly at me for a moment before asking, “Aren’t networking and small talk the same thing? What’s the difference?”
“Small talk” is simply a communication tool used to break the ice, and initiate conversation with someone new. It can be something as mundane as the weather or how slow the elevator is, to a more organic offering like a compliment regarding someone shoes or tie, or asking what brought someone to the event, or what they thought of the event’s speaker.
Once we’re a couple of sentences in, I simply segue with, “By the way, I’m Laura.” Then I can ask more about them, and see where the conversation takes us.
In case you’re still hesitant, here’s a secret: the vast majority of people there feel as uncomfortable as you do about networking! They are unsure of whom to approach or how to start the conversation, and are hoping someone will take the first step for them. If you do them that favor, they’re already grateful to you, and that’s a great way to start a relationship.
When you look at networking from this perspective, without the pressure of collecting a certain number of business cards, forcing two hours of small talk or closing a deal, it is almost certain that you will find opportunities for future benefits, and even learn to enjoy yourself in the process.
Do you have questions or comments about the issues in today’s post, want to know how to apply them, or how to help others with them? If so, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to schedule a 20-minute focus call to discuss them with me personally!