Effective networking is a skill set that no serious professional of the 21st Century can be without. Whether you network in person or online, in any industry and at any career level, networking can help you to make connections in a personal way, and build relationships of support and respect that will help you to discover and create mutual benefits.
But ask ten different people what networking is, and you may get as many as ten different answers. A person's definition of networking probably depends upon their own use of this important personal and professional activity. You may wish to make new friends, to find a new job, to develop your current career, to explore new career options, to obtain referrals or sales leads, or simply to broaden your professional horizons. Whatever your personal motivation to get involved, one of the most valuable tips I have picked up is to focus on networking as process of exchanging information, contacts and/or experience - rather than a means to an end. Why? Because it's one of the unspoken 'rules' that overtly and directly going for what you want, or even hinting at using your network for your own ends, is just not the done thing...
There's certainly a huge minefield of unspoken 'rules' associated with face-to-face and online networking. You've probably discovered that people become very passionate about the 'right' way to behave, and often judgmental of anyone who gets it 'wrong'... I've certainly read many a blog comment about social networking etiquette - such as how insulting it is to ask people to connect on LinkedIn using the default message. It's fascinating how a seemingly insignificant action can stir up so much negative emotion!
Anyway, I'm definitely NOT of the belief that we should all subscribe to the same set of rules, nor do I feel that anyone who inadvertently breaks the rules should be shunned, or chastised. Instead, I feel it's more helpful if we become a little more aware of ourselves and others in our interactions, and through reflection of what works and what doesn't work, to develop our own set of guidelines. So the following list of "No-No's" and tips are not intended to be a set of commandments. They're simply from my own observations that I'd like to share in the interests of making our collective networking activities more pleasurable and productive:
GENERAL NETWORKING "No-No's"
Have no particular purpose in mind - It does you no good to attend any networking function, or to join an online networking group unless you have thought about why you are getting involved.
Don't introduce yourself - if you're not naturally gregarious, joining a physical or even a virtual room and introducing yourself can feel daunting. But it's a vital step to help get yourself known and part of the 'crowd'. Remember, if you’re feeling nervous, you’re probably thinking too much about yourself. Introductions are about making other people feel comfortable with you around... there's nothing more uncomfortable than a shadowy figure lurking in the background and listening in to your conversations!
Assume others are mind-readers – It's a big mistake to assume that everyone knows what you do, and what matters to you. Remember that networking often involves meeting people who are not in our industry, or who do not share our expertise. So spell it out, share your knowledge and help others to understand where you're coming from.
Try to be someone you're not - You may want to make a good impression, but trying to act out a persona that simply isn't you is a high risk strategy. Whether you're trying to seem more knowledgeable, more outgoing, more friendly, more successful... than you really are, you won't be able to keep it up for very long. Apart from being very stressful and energy consuming, trying to be who you think others will admire rarely works. Just be you, relax and converse in an uncontrived way. This will be far more impressive than any act you can put on.
Behave selfishly - Not many people like to admit that they are selfish, but if you network only with a view to what you can get from it - and forget about what you are going offer, then you're in grave danger of appearing self-interested. Brad Burton, CEO of 4Networking recently warned of the danger of looking at people in a networking meeting as if they have ££££'s over their heads. So remember, if you can see £ signs over your fellow networkers heads, then the people you're looking at are likely see them reflected in your eyes!
Compete with fellow networkers - If you're determined to use networking to find new sales leads, you're in danger of becoming competitive with anyone who appears to be getting in your way, or getting a head start. But there's nothing quite as cringe-worthy as watching someone with 'desperation' written all over them, using a variety of tactics to stand out from the crowd. By all means, be yourself and let your personality shine through, but not to extent of pushing others to the sidelines.
Have all conversations in public - The conversations and discussions you begin in a public forum (whether in a huddle in the corner of a networking event, or in a discussion thread on a website) should not necessarily be continued in public. It's the Big Brother analogy... most participants in those reality shows will say that they get so used to being filmed 24/7, that they forget the cameras are recording every word! When you're networking, never forget that your comments and conversations are being overheard. Consider when would be a good point to take certain conversations to a private arena: whether it's to discuss a special project, broker a deal, or share your concerns about something or someone.
Assume that networking ends once an event is over, or when you log out of a site - The most valuable part of networking actually happens outside of the public arena. So be sure to follow up with those you've met/chatted to, keep in direct contact, share information and offer to help in any way you can.
Fail to acknowledge any support or advice you receive from fellow networkers - Don't take the valuable contributions of others for granted. It's not your right to receive it, but a generous gift from those giving it. So make sure to give a "Thank You" or a note of recognition to any of your networking contacts who share information or help you in any way.
TIPS FOR WORKING A ROOM
In many face-to-face networking events, you will find yourself with time to "mingle" amongst the other attendees before the formal programme begins. It may be beneficial for you to spend some time planning and preparing how you will "work the room" to get the most from your efforts.
1. Start with small-talk: prepare a few neutral questions in advance that you can ask, such as:
- Tell me how you know the host, company, etc.
- What made you decide to come to this event?
- What business you are in?
- Have you been to one of these events before?
2. Let preparation and practice be your guide: spend some time planning your conversation generators - Read that day’s newspapers or look at magazine covers (of business, and general interest publications) – each source replenishes your conversation starter repertoire. Focus on neutral topics:
- The latest news or events
- Be observant – what is around you? The location, the building, etc.
- Look for topics of common interest, and share interesting or amusing stories that will resonate with the other people
3. Don't stay too long in one place: after 5 or 6 minutes, excuse yourself with a pleasantry such as, "It was nice meeting you ... "
4. If the event features a meal, practice good table etiquette to make the best impression: make the introductions, and proceed as if you're the host of the table:
- Start conversations by asking questions: why people are there, what they hope to gain, how they found out about the event.
- Avoid monopolising the conversation.
- Keep your business cards handy but don't deal them out impersonally.
Networking can be a fun and easy way to enrich your life, broaden your horizons, and enhance your career. But, it can also be potentially devastating if you act rudely, insensitively, or ignore the needs and desires of others. Remember, crucial to your success is that you treat networking as an exchange of ideas, information and experience. You are not selling or simply telling or "sponging" off of others for your own benefit only. Be generous in sharing your talents, experiences, and ideas, and always be respectful of those around you. That way, you will gain far more than you could ever imagine.