The prevalent business buzzword of the 80’s, networking, is often accompanied by thoughts of tacky business card exchanges and schmoozing over cocktails at happy hour. However, in today’s increasingly digital age, those who excel at in-person encounters are those climbing the ladder to success in the same way they always have.
You may hate the expression, but even today, it’s still not what you know but who you know that matters. Have sites like LinkedIn helped introverts and people with terrible social skills make connections? Absolutely! However, at some point you’ll have to talk to someone face to face and you won’t be able to take 2 hours to craft a perfect response to someone’s query.
After a decade of online socializing, face-to-face people skills are making a comeback. In the business world, the faster you can build rapport and make connections for others, the more valuable you become in the workplace. Building a top-notch network can be a challenge, but it’s also an enjoyable experience that leads to relationships that extend much farther than the boardroom.
Where To Start?
First, reframe networking from getting jobs and swapping contact information to building relationships. Take inventory of your current social circle and think people not positions. Who do you know? Who do they know? How can you add value to their lives?
If that’s your goal is simply to fill a rolodex with business cards when heading to a networking event, you’ve failed before you’ve even entered the room. Focus on making genuine connections and provide value to build relationships.
When starting out, reach out to friends, family, colleagues, & alumni before attending big networking conferences. It’s easier to strengthen a relationship with someone you have a connection, even if you haven’t spoken since college, than to meet an entirely new group of people.
Remove the social/professional label and focus on building relationships with as many people as possible. If you only think about networking as a business affair you miss out on the opportunities to build connections within your community and friend group.
Stand Out, Get Noticed, Be Remembered
When attending and actual networking event, it’s important to differentiate yourself from the crowd. This doesn’t mean you should wear a lime green suit and a bedazzled hat. Instead, use a distinctive pocket square, tie, watch, or shoes to create an easy ice-breaker.
Maybe just stick with a pocket square...
Not only should you differentiate yourself visually, you need to differentiate yourself professionally as well. Remember, that everyone going to the event is attempting the same things - make connections, get business cards, find a new job, etc.
However, the easiest way to set yourself apart is by nailing the first impression and being shockingly helpful. People are much more likely to help you when they have shared interests and genuinely like you as a person. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to jump right into the “so what do you do” conversation.
Always start by learning their name and remembering it! Ask questions unrelated to the job or event – learn their goals, dreams, and aspirations. This will help to grow a bond that is stronger than simply asking about work.
What are their passions and hobbies? Maybe your sister’s went to college together! Who knows? The point is, if you don’t ask and don’t think outside the box, you’ll never know how much stronger you could have built a relationship.
Think of your networking like building a tightrope; would you rather have one string (work) that connects you to others? Or would you prefer multiple instances of common ground (work, family, interests, food, etc) that can build a stronger bond? At the end of the day the most important aspect is to be authentic and sincere. Be the best, most positive version of yourself and take a genuine interest in the other party.
Pay It Forward
Just like High School there is normally a hierarchy among attendees at a networking event. There may be a few CEO’s or keynote speakers who are bombarded by young businessmen and women asking for connections, opportunities, and looking for their next big break. Your goal is to change the status quo. Think about what you can give to the networking community.
By giving FIRST, you will stand out from the crowd. As you meet people throughout the night, take notes on the interesting pieces of information you gather. In your follow up you’ll use this information to add value and show you were paying attention during your conversation.
For example, you’re talking to someone and realized they enjoy eating sushi and later in the conversation they mention that they are going on a business trip to San Francisco the following week. When you get home you can send a quick e-mail and provide a recommendation for one of the hottest new sushi places in San Fran.
The best part about being helpful is that it’s FREE. Do some research on the internet and provide valuable information that is directly related to something you spoke about at the networking event. This shows that the conversation was meaningful and that you have taken the first steps to building a solid foundation & relationship.
Become a Super-Connector
As you grow your network you’ll discover that you are not only expanding your own personal connections, but are now also able to assist in some unlikely scenarios. Because you’ve now become a networking ninja with a contact book bursting at the seams, you can become a connector for others that you’ve met.
Keep track of the people you’ve met by category. This way when you make a new friend you can cross-reference your network and see if you are able to help make introductions to other influencers for them.
Not only are you helping others but you are able to rekindle contact with some you may not have spoken to in some time. They will be flattered you are making the connection and will feel responsible to ensuring a successful connection and therefore a successful project.
Don’t Forget to Follow Up
The most important aspect of follow up is actually following up! If you promised to send someone specific information – send it. If you promised an introduction – make it. It only takes a moment to send an email. One introduction can change your, or someone else’s, life forever. Become a master networker by helping others and it will pay you back in spades.
Networking is not something that only happens at networking events. It is a skill that is practiced and honed throughout the year. Networking events are the “big games” where you get to excel at your craft. If you are heading to an event with the goal of building rapport and growing relationships then even a stuffy networking event can be an amazing opportunity.