NETWORKING sounds like hell – awkward conversations over virgin cocktails, angling around a room full of obvious sociopaths, the neurosis that your personal pitch may fall desperately flat.
But we’re told that networking is increasingly important. People prefer doing business with those they know and like, it’s easier to ask favours of people you’ve met before, and knowledge of your sector makes you better at your job. And when you’re looking to change roles, having some prior knowledge of those who could help you, or inform you of that next crucial opening, is nothing but beneficial.
So how can you take the edge off networking? These five tips will help you become a better networker and make the experience less uninviting and more beneficial.
1 INJECT SOME PERSONALITY
Julia Hobsbawm is founder of the media networking business Editorial Intelligence and honorary visiting professor in networking at the Cass Business School. She highlights what she sees as a “working world which increasingly blends the personal and the professional.” Whatever environment you may be in, “you need to bring your individual personality into the room, as well as your professional credentials, to maximise benefit.” Although oversharing can certainly be a problem – particularly online – others will appreciate, and respond positively to, any injection of personality. Networking is, after all, not just any other business meeting. It’s an opportunity to learn more about those you are, or may be, working with.
2 BE CURIOUS
Knowledge is a crucial currency – the more you know about the people you are meeting, the better the long-term results will be. And, according to Hobsbawm, “curiosity is the single biggest asset you can bring to networking.” This doesn’t mean approaching an event with a “goal-orientated” mindset. You should try to ask questions and hear answers, and genuinely learn something from your new contacts. There’s no need to be hard-headed and ruthless. Do some advanced preparation of the people you’re likely to be meeting and you’ll be more likely to find that fresh idea, or that new contact, that will make the event worthwhile.
3 PUT NAMES TO FACES
Twitter, LinkedIn, even Facebook, they all provide new ways of facilitating conversation. Karen Gill, co-founder of Everywoman, a membership organisation for women in business, thinks “online forums are a great way to network,” especially if your schedule is tight. But they stand at a disadvantage. “It’s easier to get to know someone in person,” says Gill. And Hobsbawm agrees. “There’s nothing to beat face-to-face connection in the Facebook age,” she says. This doesn’t necessarily mean stumping up the courage to approach someone cold – a specially-designed event can salve those fears. Hobsbawm suggests networking in a “curated environment, where someone meets and greets you or acts as an introducer.”
4 THERE’S SAFETY IN NUMBERS
And finding these curated environments needn’t be difficult. Gill suggests joining devoted networking or support organisations – whether internal or external to your firm – and the more you can join the better. Even if you’re put off by the politics of gender, race or sexuality-specific groups, they can just be a good excuse to connect, regardless of whether you feel anything in common. “It’s also a good idea to belong to a network linked to your industry or speciality,” says Gill. This is particularly crucial for those considering a career change. “If you want to get the inside scoop on who’s looking to recruit, or want to hear what it’s like working for a particular company, it’s much easier if you already have a strong network,” she says.
5 PLAY THE LONG GAME
And if it all goes wrong, your initial pitch falls flat and you leave an event feeling like you’ve wasted an hour of your life, don’t give up. “The best networking often has long term benefits which are hard to quantify and measure in normal metrics,” argues Hobsbawm. You may not have made any new friends but, if you maintain your focus, any new connection could still prove advantageous. Some people will take a highly methodical approach and set up a database to keep track of contacts and recent communications. But Hobsbawm says the best way to maintain a long-term relationship is by being human – “with trust, with loyalty, with reliability, and with real connection.”
Julia Hobsbawm runs the professional networking development company Editorial Intelligence (www.editorialintelligence.com). Her inaugural public lecture, as visiting professor in networking at Cass Business School, takes place on 27 June - Register at http://goo.gl/VHqge