Perfect the art of networking with these simple tips

CAREER DEVELOPMENT EXPERT

ONE of the first things to greet executives on their return to the office in the new year should be the fruit of attending all those pre-Christmas hospitality events – a neat stack of business cards promising new business leads.

But perhaps not. Many people will be lucky to have amassed a small handful of new business cards, most of which promise dead ends and which are destined to join the pile of last year’s business cards which still haven’t seen any action.

In 2012, networking will become an increasingly important skill as business opportunities continue to prove scarce. Networking contacts are also the number one route to a new job for most professionals. If your festive networking efforts were less than impressive, make improving your networking skills your new year’s resolution.

Walking into a room full of unknown faces already arranged happily into pairs can make you want to huddle in a corner and spend this valuable time tweeting on your BlackBerry. Networking opportunities are frequently missed because people either can’t overcome their reluctance to talk to strangers, or go into high-powered selling-mode.

Preparation is the key. Before attending an event, find out who is going to be there. Get a list of attendees from the organiser, identify the ones you would like to meet and set yourself a reasonable target. If you are attending a seminar, for example, aim to meet four or five new people.

The first hurdle is to join a group. There are physical clues that indicate who is willing to be approached. Look for an open pair: a couple who aren’t directly facing each other. Walk up smartly, making eye contact with the person who seems to be leading the conversation, and say: “May I join you?” Plan some introductory questions: what would get you talking? If you have targeted a number of attendees and done your homework, you will be able to ask some very relevant questions.

Resist the temptation to launch into a long diatribe about what you do, spraying information about yourself in the hope that some of it will stick. Differentiate yourself from the crowd by being the person who shows they can listen, understand the other person’s point of view and respond with questions.

When it’s time to move on, be honest. Request a business card, look at it, thank the person, say how nice it was to meet them and that you are now going to see if you can meet a couple of other people.

After the event you should follow-up within 48 hours. Before calling or emailing your new contact, ask yourself why that person would be interested in you. It’s clear why you want to stay in contact – to get new business leads – but what’s in it for the other person?

Telephoning somebody when you have nothing to say or offer is very difficult. Why not ask for their advice on a certain matter. If you get in touch by LinkedIn, don’t send the standard message – say something and make it personal.

Send your new contact a link to an article picking up a subject that you had discussed when you first met – it shows that you were listening and gives you an excuse to pick up the phone. Better still, pen them a short handwritten note and enclose the article. That really does differentiate you.

Jack Downton is managing director of The Influence Business. theinfluencebusiness.com