Copyright (c) 2010 K. MacKillop
Mastering the art of effective networking marks the difference between merely successful entrepreneurs and captains of industry – the better you are at networking, the more power you wield. Networking serves many purposes, from building your customer base to providing and receiving needed resources from contacts in the business community, and anyone planning on growing a startup should devote time to sharpening their networking skills.
For many experienced entrepreneurs, networking events are the most productive way to spend their limited business-social time. For others, entering a room full of people seems overwhelming, especially if they don’t know anyone else there. There are a few simple rules to follow to be successful working the room, and anyone with a little willingness can learn to be a master of networking.
Begin With the End In Mind
Before you attend any networking events, plan your objectives. Whether you have a specific business problem you need to address, or you are looking to add three solid business contacts to your network, or you need two new client leads, going in with a plan will make the time you spend networking far more effective. Attending without set objectives is far more likely to result in a lot of time spent with very little payoff.
As you become more involved in your business community, you will likely find that there are enough networking events to completely fill your calendar. There is no need to attend every event. Some organizations will meet your particular needs better than others. Try out different venues, and evaluate the outcome based on a simple rule – you should obtain at least three new contacts, leads, or pieces of useful information for every hour you spend networking. If you find yourself attending a weekly event with the same people and you are not garnering any new information or leads, consider reducing your attendance to once per month and trying different events to improve your results.
In addition to setting specific objectives, prepare topics to discuss, knowledge to offer, and questions to ask to keep the conversation going. If there is a specific referral or information that you need, make a note so you don’t forget. Take your planner with you to hold business cards and take notes as needed.
Working the Room
Every networking event you attend will fall into one of three categories: you know everyone there, you know a few people, or you don’t know a soul. Each circumstance requires a different approach. If you know everyone, be sure to make contact with them all. Limit your conversations to a few minutes each. If possible, make introductions between professionals you know who have something in common or complementary skills or businesses.
If you know only a few people in the room, start by catching up with each of them. Ask them who else they know and to introduce you around. Be sure you do the same by introducing the people you know to each other. Be prepared with business cards to exchange and make a habit of giving two to each new contact – one to keep and one to pass on as a referral. When you receive cards from new contacts, take a moment to note any interesting personal or business information about them to add to your contact database. If someone you meet does not have a business card, write down their information in your planner…whatever you do, never let a potentially good contact go to waste.
If you don’t know anyone at a networking event, start by looking for people standing by themselves. No one likes to be on the outside looking in, and generally these other folks will also be uncomfortable because they don’t know anyone. Once you have chatted for a few minutes, take your new contact with you to meet another loner, and another, until you have a group that everyone else in the room wants to join. Showing that kind of leadership will make you the go-to contact in your business community and will increase the odds of growing your business through referrals.
If the event you are attending has a “special guest” invited, most attendees will be clamoring for their attention. If the press is present, you should be talking to them. Meeting the state Senator is exciting, but knowing the local business reporter will get you more exposure and, thus, more business. Pay attention to what people are talking about and be just as interested in what you can do for them as in what they can do for you. Set an objective to be the best networking contact in your industry or area, and work every room with that intention in mind.
What to do (and not to do) at networking events
Some basic do’s and don’ts of networking events:
- Do dress one step up from how you expect everyone else to be dressed.
- Don’t make critical judgments of others based on how they are dressed.
- Do carry more than enough business cards, at least one pen, and your planner or notepad.
- Don’t answer calls, texts, or emails while talking with others. If you must use your smartphone, excuse yourself and step outside.
- Do listen to what other people need and take note – if you can help them, it will improve your reputation as a great contact.
- Don’t talk too much about personal things, especially if they are negative. Even if you are on the brink of divorce, your kid was suspended from school, and your dog bit the neighbor, nobody in the networking environment needs to know about it. Same goes for medical issues.
- Do review your notes from the last event and follow up as appropriate.
- Do not bring up negative issues in front of uninvolved contacts.
- Do make a point to chat with the bartender and servers – you’d be surprised who they know and who they might end up to be.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Avoid eating unless absolutely starving. Food in your teeth and garlic breath is not the image you are striving for. If you must eat, take a break and be sure to check yourself in the restroom before getting back to networking. Don’t try to talk to others while they are eating. Seriously, grab an energy bar on the way – why waste limited networking time on a snack?
Effective networking skills are a powerful tool for entrepreneurs, and the ability to work a room is one of the toughest to master. Use common sense and make a point of evaluating your performance after each networking event. The more self-aware you are, the easier it will be to become the go-to contact in your area and industry.