You are an entrepreneur. You know you need to network. What’s the first thought that pops into your head?
· Nah, why bother when I can connect with the world online?
· Yippee! I love walking into a room full of strangers and selling myself without coming across as desperate and/or terrified?
· Go on then, why not?
If you’re a networking novice and veer towards introversion, attending an event can be daunting. But with a bit of preparation and a dollop of positivity, networking can be constructive, productive, confidence-building and – gasp – fun.
Yes, you do have to walk into a room full of strangers – paragliding in could break the ice but might shred the nerves of the venue’s health and safety officer.
Yes, you do need to actually speak to people and not just loiter on the sidelines nibbling nonchalantly on a breadstick.
Yes, you need to develop a way to chat comfortably to people about who you are and what you do without wittering and shoving a business card in their face.
So, what’s the secret to conquering networking nerves and leaving with a warm fuzzy “I’ve made some great contacts and had a laugh” feeling?
1. Prepare. Some events will let you see who else is attending so be nosey and search for common ground/shared contacts to get a conversation started. If you don’t know who’ll be there, hunt through the organiser’s social media feeds for video/photos of previous events and see what to expect.
2. If you know you’ll be doing a one-minute introduction, practice it first. Time yourself knowing that it’s highly unlikely anyone else will.
3. Check the news before you leave. Discussing the latest headlines, serious or quirky, is far less yawnsome than resorting to talking about the terrible rain recently.
4. Dress comfortably and confidently. If you feel flustered before you walk through the door, stop, take a few deep breaths, straighten your back and smile.
5. Some networking events will include speakers and/or an introduction from everyone. This is a great opportunity to pick out the people you think you’ll most enjoy talking to. If it’s a free-for-all, then taking the plunge is more pot luck.
6. If you find yourself conversation-less, eavesdrop – subtly. You may hear someone discussing their futile hunt for a fabulous freelance flamenco dancer and you could be the answer to their prayers. Or they could just be talking about cats and hey, you love cats, so politely invite yourself to join them.
7. People will already know other people there, so if you end up out in the conversational cold, seek out the other billy-no-mates. Simply introduce yourself, ask what they do and chat. If you reach an awkward “we have zero in common” stage, extricate yourself politely – this is a networking event after all, not some disastrous blind date – and move along. A quick trip to the WC can be a lifesaver here.
8. Bring your business cards but don’t arrive clutching them to your bosom. Offer them to anyone who you think may be interested - but only after you’ve spoken to them. Their purpose is to provide your contact details not to replace actual conversation.
I’ve met some genuinely lovely people and useful business contacts through networking. So be bold and take the plunge, you never know where you might land.