Who doesn’t dread the prospect of networking? Just you, a glass of lukewarm white wine in hand, and a cavernous room of strangers – already deep in conversation. But, like it or loathe it, it’s an inevitable part of getting ahead. So, here are eight smart-thinking hacks from leading business experts to help you get in, get what you need, and get out in the most productive, least taxing way.
1. Stay focussed
Karen Kwong is the founder and CEO of Ren Organisational Consulting, which specialises in getting the best out of business people. For her, the first step to being a successful networker is to decide on your end goal – and stick to it. ‘Before you go to an event, you’ve got to decide how it’ll benefit you. This could include wanting to meet new people to learn and broaden your horizons, spreading the word that you’re looking for a new challenge, or telling others about your new venture. As you’re trying to build relationships, you should think about how best to make the most of them to achieve your end goal.’
2. Remember, it’s not just about you
All the experts we talked to agreed that going in with the hard sell at a networking event is an immediate red flag. Leo Bottary, an expert on peer advantage, whose book What Anyone Can Do: How Surrounding Yourself with the Right People Will Drive Change, Opportunity, and Personal Growth is out in September, emphasises the relationship-building aspect of networking. ‘Too often people see networking as transactional and self serving, when it’s actually about relationship building and generosity. The more you demonstrate interest in others the more likely you can build a solid relationship and inspire others to serve you.’
3. Do your homework
Business strategist and management consultant John Hagerty emphasises that successful networking is all in the preparation. ‘If you’re attending a networking event, contact the organiser and find out who else is attending so you can focus on meeting the right few people. Then you’ll have time to really engage with them in the most productive way.’
4. Tailor your conversation
For Anne Millne-Riley, a business coach, it’s not just about picking the right people to meet – it’s speaking to them in the most effective (and natural) way you can. ‘A big mistake some people make is to tailor their message to “everyone” and then appeal to “no one”. Learn the profile of your preferred audience and ensure your efforts go into networking in your niche field.’
5. Talk to everyone – yes, everyone
Yes, it’s important to single out the people you want to talk to. But what about the person sitting next to you? They could be the crucial connection you’ve been waiting for. ‘Another big mistake is assuming that people don’t want to talk to you,’ says Ms Kwong. ‘How will you know until you engage with them in a conversation? Through a random chat, they might end up being one of your biggest supporters.’
6. Don’t go to every event
‘Work out which type of networking suits your style best. and play to your strengths,’ advises Ms Kwong. ‘If you’re naturally extroverted, be that person who works the room. If you’re more introverted, you can still hold meaningful conversations but be brave and select a few people to talk to. Also, only attend events that suit you. Don’t waste time or money on too-large events that make you uncomfortable, if you’d prefer networking in closer-knit settings.’
7. Always follow up
So you’ve worked the room, made connections, built relationships. What next? Just as important as going to the networking event is following up afterwards. ‘If you have a great interaction with someone, send them an email or a note and thank them, tell them how it made a difference to you,’ recommends Mr Hagerty.
8. Make it a habit
And the most salient networking tip? Keep going back for more. Just going to the occasional networking event isn’t enough to pat yourself on the back and call it on a done deal – to really benefit, you’ve got to make it a habit. ‘Choose to have a conversation with someone outside your immediate circle once a week. Grab coffee and use it as an opportunity to share and learn from one another,’ says Mr Bottary.