Networking is a learned skill that can help you develop your career. Getting better at it will help you expand your network, find opportunities, learn more about your market and make new friends.
A refreshing moment in my career: I was sitting in front of an audience of 250 private equity executives during a panel discussion. The difference was that at least half of the audience was made up women and it included many ethnic minorities, a far cry from the stereotypical audience of middle-aged men in grey suits. Admittedly it was at the Diversity VC conference organised by our industry body, the BVCA. While the focus of the discussion was on what private equity firms are doing to hire and nurture a more diverse talent base, there seemed to be another theme coming out of the Q&A, especially through the anonymous system that beamed questions straight to the moderator’s screen. And this was all about networking.
We have all been in situations where we have entered an unfamiliar room full of people and worried about how to approach people and start a conversation. Looking around at the huddled cliques of people either laughing or in deep conversation can be intimidating. Should I interrupt them? Are they talking about something important and perhaps they will get annoyed if I join them? Fears can grow. Insecurities rise up. The basic instinct of ‘flight’ feels like the best solution. Sound familiar? I have certainly felt all these fears in the past.
As a young founder of a business, I often faced these situations and it took all my courage to overcome them. Over the years, I picked up a number of tips and received advice from others which I hope may help you. Please also share your tips and we can all get better.
Just walk up – don’t be afraid to join a conversation. It is a networking event or a party. We are a social species and if we wanted to be hermits, we would not be there. Smile, say help and introduce yourself.
Ask a question – at a conference, I will always try to ask a question. I recall some conferences where some in the audience have asked long complicated questions that sounded terribly clever. Having listened to a speaker or panel, it is highly likely that whatever question may be io your mind is also on the mind of many others around you. So be the one that sticks your hand up and asks. What is the worst that can happen? Probably nothing for you. But for the person facing the audience, having no hands up when the Q&A is opened is a disaster! So help stimulate the conversation. You will almost certainly find people coming up to you after saying what an interesting question it was and that they wanted to ask the same thing but were too shy… You have got yourself noticed and the networking is suddenly much easier.
Change the conversation – a couple of hours into any event and most people will have been asked what they do a dozen times. Mix up the conversation to build a rapport. Open-ended questions can often lead to more interesting answers. Try “What’s the best thing that has happened to you this year?” or “How did you come into this sector?” or “what do you do for fun?” – ask about their hobbies, charities they support or where they grew up. People are often so interesting and passionate about things. You might even make a new friend.
Open up your body language – non-visual communication is a big topic. If someone is talking to you, look them in the eye and be present. And if someone else tries to join your group or conversation, open up the circle to make physical space for them. Smile. Pause the conversation to welcome them in and tell them what you are talking about and ask their view.
Stick your hand out to end a conversation – I am staggered how often people get stuck in a conversation: reluctant to end it for fear of being rude or comfortable that they have someone to talk to and can avoid having to find another. A great tip I was given was to just stick your hand out to shake theirs – this signals that you are leaving and that you are being respectful by shaking their hand. Put on a smile and make a joke about needing to ‘work the room’ or catch up with someone. Stick out your hand – it works really well.
Be the closer – There are many ways of ending a conversation. The key is to do so before it gets stale or awkward. Try “I don’t want to take up all your time; it was great meeting you!” or “Well I’d love to stay in touch; can we trade cards?” or “I’m going to go mingle some more, but it was nice chatting”.
What are your networking goals? Perhaps it is to meet interesting people or make new friends in the workplace, something that is proven to make you happier and enjoy work more. Or perhaps you are keen to get some leads, reconnect with existing relationships, communicate your latest news; there are so many good reasons to talk!
Spending time at a tradeshow, conference or networking event can be really productive if you make the most of the opportunity. And then follow up.