Ten top tips for networking (or how to speak to strangers)
Great questions to develop rapport, the Dalai Lama telling it like it is and the mighty power of a handwritten card.
Right up there with the fear most people have for public speaking is walking into a room full of strangers and talking to folk you’ve never met in your life.
You know the deal. Your boss is keen that you network at that event, get the word out about a new product and come back with a host of leads.
That kind of set up might work in an Amy Poehler or Ben Stiller film where 20 minutes attending a networking event involves a couple of endearing mishaps, striking up a conversation with a stranger that leads to record profits and finding your tribe of people to champion you personally and professionally for the next few decades until you retire to your private Caribbean Island.
In real life networking isn’t like this.
Being a skilled networker takes time, thought and really great communication skills.
Yes, you’re looking to grow your network but so are other people, so it’s important that you show that you are a valuable person for others to have in their network.
Here are ten tips to help you network with confidence.
1) Your Phone: friend or foe?
Before you walk into the room I have a question for you: is there an emergency back at base? (for base read home or the office). If the answer is no, put your phone on silent and put it away.
Your aim is to talk with people at the event, start or continue supportive business relationships, and represent yourself and your company.
Scrolling to check sports results, playing Candy Crush or answering your phone when someone is mid conversation right in front of you is rude.
Don’t be rude. Be courteous and be kind.
*If there is an emergency back at base and you must answer your silently vibrating phone, explain this to the person you’re talking with before you answer the call.
2) Just like you
You’ve just walked into the room where your reptilian brain scans a sea of people all shiny and professional, brimming with Kanye West “I’m just the bee’s knees, yes, you may bask in my magnificence” confidence.
But this group of folk is made of individuals with idiosyncrasies.
They have skills and strengths and talents and yet one of them is having a bad hair day, one of them got a lousy night’s sleep and one of them is trying to master holding a glass of sparkling water, a plate of canapes and delicately eating and talking at the same time.
“Think about the energy you bring into the room.”
They are not sabre tooth tigers.
They are human.
They are just like you.
The best thing you can do to prepare is consider the energy you’re bringing into the room.
Make sure you’re firing on all cylinders for a networking event.
Be positive. And before you say anything to anyone look them in the eye and smile.
Think about it.
Imagine you’re at a networking event and someone approaches you, looks you in the eye and smiles.
Doesn’t it make you feel more welcome and comfortable if that person is kind and friendly to you before they’ve even said a word?
This clip below from the brilliant film, The Boxtrolls, shows the importance of making a good first impression. (It also shows how not to eat cheese at a party).
4) Nix negativity
Armed with positive energy and a warm smile? Wonderful!
Make sure you also dial down any negativity. Don’t moan about the weather, about being too busy or grumble about what might have been a bad morning.
You don’t want to be remembered as a moaner.
Keep the conversation positive and supportive.
5) Open questions
So, you’ve smiled at your new friend, and they didn’t hot foot it out of the door but smiled back.
Now you get to use your words.
“Open questions are your best friend.”
Perhaps the scariest thing for a lot of people is figuring out what to say to a total stranger to start a conversation.
And words which are organized as open questions are your best friend because they open up a lot of opportunities for conversation.
Your aim is to get a rapport going and to find out more about who you’re talking to. Yes, you’re there for business purposes but you are talking to a person. Find out what topics she’s enthusiastic about, what lights her up. This will help you develop rapport.
You also want to talk with her and not to her. Here are a few open questions to get you started:
1) How has your day gone so far?
2) What brought you to this event?
3) What are your impressions of the event?
4) Who have you seen/who have you heard that excited you?
5) What are you working on over the next few months?
6) Active listening
Networking is about listening and listening well is hard.
It takes concentration and showing that you’re paying attention and following what is being said. This means giving the person you’re talking to the space to speak, making good eye contact and nodding to show that you understand what you’re hearing.
“This doesn’t mean you should cross examine with the forensic charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.”
Make sure you show that you are paying attention by nodding at the right bits and not randomly bobbing your head up and down to that song you’ve got stuck in your head.
7) Add value
You’ve come along to the networking event to meet people who can add value to your network. And so have the other people at the event.
It’s all about give and take.
The closer you listen and the more you learn about who you’re talking with, the more you’ll be able to add value.
This doesn’t mean you should cross examine with the forensic charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes; it means you are actively aware of what you hear and are mindful about how you can help that person with knowledge or contacts you have in your network.
8) Follow up
Time for an equation.
Open questions + active listening + add value = Easy follow up
Your follow up is what you do after the event, back at your desk.
After meeting a new person that you want to include in your network, send them an email soon after the event.
In this email say something positive about the conversation you had and why you enjoyed it and then offer them something of value.
This can be a link to a website that might interest them, an article you’ve read on a subject that you both spoke about, or it could even be introducing them to a contact that you mentioned in your conversation, for example, someone who has similar interests to them.
The better the conversation you had and the closer you listened, the easier this email will be.
Remember, others are looking to grow their network, too, and they want trustworthy, knowledgeable folk who will follow up on what they say they will do.
Be a trustworthy, knowledgeable person that others want in their network.
9) On the ball
The speed of your follow up is important. Being prompt shows you are organized and get things done.
It also shows that you are a valuable connection to have in other people’s network because you deliver, and being the first person to add value is, well, a valuable thing.
It shows you take initiative and responsibility.
And it’s always nice to be nice.
Being helpful to others’ needs also increases the likelihood that the person you’ve helped will remember you and help you out some time in the future.
And if you ask for a favour she is more likely to help because you’ve helped her.
You want your network to grow and flower and this requires the same time, care and nurture as looking after plants does.
10) The handwritten card
A good networker knows the mighty power of a hand written card.
I can’t emphasise this one enough.
If someone in your network has something to celebrate, they are going through a really crappy time, or they’ve done you a favour, write them a card with a thoughtful message.
There are a bunch of different card sets on the market: those brimming with blooms, those with a joke to raise a giggle and the artsy, abstract ones that fit a whole host of occasions.
Invest in a few boxes and choose accordingly to the situation and the person you’re writing to.
Sending this will make a person feel valued, raise a smile and it will brighten up their desk for a few days.
The handwritten card might be small but the impact is HUGE.
So the next time you’re about to go to a networking event consider these ten tips.
They can help you confidently navigate a sea of strangers and use your communication skills to strengthen and grow your network.
And who knows, you might even enjoy it.