If you’re a woman with your own business, networking probably forms a significant part of your working life. But do you really make the most of it? When we think of networking, many of us hyperventilate and get a bit agitated. That’s because we think about walking into a room full of strangers, telling people who we are and what we do, and handing out a few business cards before making a break for freedom. That’s all very well if something good comes of it – but with that concept of networking, probably very little will! So we’ll have traumatised ourselves for nothing.
Think Outside the Room
To make networking work, firstly we need to think about it differently. It’s not just about working the room (something most of us are less than comfortable with) or making new friends (which often comes much easier!) It’s about actively making professional relationships, developing and maintaining these relationships, and maximising them for the benefit of all parties. Bit difficult to do all that over a couple of hours and a few units of alcohol!
Do it Again
So networking should be something we do on an ongoing basis – before, during and especially after the room event! As with anything, preparation is key. So before you start, plan your ‘elevator pitch’ – how you tell someone what they need to know about you, and why they need to know it, in just enough lines to stop their attention wandering to the buffet. The important thing here is make it memorable and relevant to them. For example, instead of just telling people I’m an HR and employment law consultant, I tell them that I help organisations improve their business performance through how they lead, manage and develop their staff, thereby getting a better return on their employee investment. Be aware of your own ‘brand’, and think about what you want to be known and recognised for.
The next step is to be aware of your own personal impact and how you come across to people when they first meet you. Do you have a firm handshake, a bone-crushing grip or a clammy palm? What does your body language say – approachable and confident, overbearing and annoying, or nervous and uncomfortable? If you find it hard to maintain eye contact when talking with people, it can make you look a bit shifty (a good tip is to instead focus just between their eyes instead of eyeball to eyeball – far less intimidating for both of you!)
Work it, Baby!
Once you’re there, working the room can also be intimidating – but it doesn’t need to be! Have a few phrases ready for breaking into conversations, and look for ‘open’ groups where there is a gap between people and they don’t seem to be in intense conversation.
To start or interrupt a conversation, “Mind if I join you?” usually works , particularly if you precede it with “You look like a nice friendly person/group!”
Step out of that Comfort Zone
I frequently go to networking events and see gender-segregated groups, with women gravitating towards other women, often of the same age range or with a similar style or image. But although it can be tempting to just stick to people who we think of as being like ourselves, staying within our comfort zone can limit our opportunities – so try and mix with a wider variety of people!
Also have a few phrases for breaking away, otherwise you could end up joined at the hip to one person all evening. Try “Nice talking to you – I need to do some more circulating” or similar. A nice touch is “Do you have anyone you particularly want to speak to , so that if I see them I can point them in your direction?” But avoid saying you’re going to the buffet/bar/loo – they may follow you!
It’s in the Details
Exchange business cards, or use your phone to store someone’s details. Don’t just shove your cards at everyone in sight like a Vegas croupier! Simply ask “Are you happy to exchange contact details?” or “Can I give you my/take your card?” It can help to write on the back of people’s business cards useful notes, such as what you talked about or what they’re interested in.
Follow-up is Key
This is where the big difference between successful and unsuccessful networking comes in – the follow-up! Women tend to be more naturally affiliative than men, so this is where we have the advantage. No point in having a drawer full of unused contact details, so get in touch with people soon afterwards, even if there isn’t an immediately obvious business opportunity.
Email is the best way as it’s less intrusive. Give them a reminder of who you are, add in some pleasantries, and if you think it’s worth continuing your conversation to see if there are any mutually beneficial opportunities, suggest a coffee at some point. But it may take a while before people are ready to do business with you, so in the meantime, maintain contact and start to add value to the relationship through PIFing – that’s Pass It Forward! Send on bits of relevant and useful information that people may appreciate – news items, websites, introductions to other people etc.
With modern technology, we can be networking and PIFing all the time – reconnecting with people through email newsletters, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and other social media etc. It’s also worth using networking organisations and websites such as LinkedIn to build and maintain connections and referrals, get recommendations (a bit like references), pass on information, and use groups to expand your areas of knowledge and expertise. It means you can keep in touch without people thinking you’re stalking them, but just enough that you stay in their mind!
Revise and Review
Finally, remember to regularly revise and review your networks and how you use them. What are your contacts for – professional advice, opportunities and expertise, sources of new business, collaboration for new ideas or joint ventures, or social/personal support? How valuable are your contacts, and are you making the most of them? Is there synergy – i.e. do you benefit them just as much? Keep on top of your networks and make them work for you.
So change the way you approach networking and it could change how successful you are – it’s not just working the room, it’s a way of life!