I hate networking… or more accurately, I hate most networking events! The thought of meeting for breakfast at 7am (I’m not at my best in the mornings!) in a soulless hotel meeting room, with fifty people I’ve never met, all wanting to sell themselves and their business to me, fills me with dread. At that time of day I’d much rather be eating porridge with my wife and daughter instead of thrusting my business card into the hands of unsuspecting strangers.
Many of us see networking as a necessary evil. Something we’re not that keen on but that we do anyway in order to “get our faces out there”. However, I think that this strategy needs a major rethink. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, we can all get a lot more value from any networking situation – whether at a formal event, or a chance meeting on a train – if we stop thinking about ourselves and start focusing on our audience…
We’re all in the same boat
When we first enter a room, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else is more confident than us or already knows people there. The reality is normally somewhat different. In the first 15 to 20 minutes of any new experience, most people feel a little bit uncomfortable. Our ancient fight or flight mechanism kicks in and most people are working at varying levels to resist the urge to run back to the safety of somewhere more familiar. Once we realise this, and we start to focus on making other people feel comfortable rather than worrying about how we are feeling personally, we will instantly begin to feel calmer and build rapport.
We have two ears and one mouth
Silence can be uncomfortable. One mistake many people make is to feel the need to fill it. The result is that we find ourselves droning on and on about ourselves, oblivious to the fact that we are making it very difficult for the other person to enter the conversation. Remember that it’s a dialogue not a monologue. Ask questions and be genuinely interested in the answers… and if the other person doesn’t answer immediately… wait. Some people need time to think and process after a question, so trust that what you asked was interesting and refrain from jumping in with a second question just to fill a gap. You create a deeper connection and remember more about a person if you start to understand their story, rather than trying to remember their job title. So listen more and speak less. It’s a winning combination.
We remember who connected us
One of the most powerful mind-set shifts I have had with regards to networking is to look at it as an opportunity to find connections for others rather than connections for myself. I now no longer enter the room looking to find new contacts for my business. Instead I enter the room looking to create new connections for other businesses by introducing those I meet to the great people already in my network. By seeking to facilitate meaningful and useful relationships, rather than sell my products and services, not only do I create real value for others but I also become seen as valuable and influential. We remember people who did nice things for us, not the people who tried to sell us stuff. So go the extra mile and get connecting. It’s a really powerful way of doing business and it doesn’t cost a penny!
We never know who’s in the room
This final lesson I learned the hard way. They say “assumption is the mother of all #*%$ ups”. And in my experience, “they” are right. At one event I attended early in my acting career, I assumed that there was no one important in the room. Instead of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and meeting new people I hung out in safety with the people I came in with. What I had failed to notice was that someone I really wanted to connect with was there too. At the end of the event, one of my friends turned to me and said, “Did you get a chance to talk to John?” My heart sank. “That was John?” I replied, “He didn’t look as important as I had expected. I thought it was his assistant!?!” I had missed my opportunity because I had made an assumption and had stayed within my comfort zone. You never know who might be in the room or where a connection could lead. Learn from my mistake… take a risk!
As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s not actually networking I hate, it’s some of the events themselves. But the more that I go to, the more I realise that the ball’s in my court. We can choose how we connect with others and, done well, networking can create real value for both ourselves and the people we meet.