Networking – A “How to” Guide
Networking! That dreaded word which strikes fear into the hearts of many, whilst for others, is music to their ears. Whether you’re on the introvert, extrovert or able to flit between the two, it would be hard to make a case that networking is bad for business, unless of course, you are the wrecking ball of social situations. The good news is that networking is a skill that can be learnt and someone who is highly proficient at making a solid impression at these events is Sally Mlikota, Director CBC Staff Selection. We asked Sally to share some of her top tips for networking success and were surprised to learn that even the most socially awkward amongst us can become brilliant networkers. You just need to know how.
Our business doesn’t currently participate in networking events. Should we?
Cairns is built on relationships and rather than the fabled six degrees of separation, there are more like two in our city. If people know, like and respect you, there is a greater chance that they will want to do business with you. Networking enables you to reach a different audience and lay the foundations for new business paths. But before you even get to that point, it’s important to work out why you want to attend.
Whilst the assumption is that people go to networking events to build up their business, that isn’t necessarily always the case. It could be for career progression, to make more friends, to increase your confidence or to learn from people in other businesses. Many networking events have keynote speakers for example who impart their knowledge on certain subjects. More often than not, they will be visitors from out of town who you have built successful careers in larger, more diverse businesses who are more than happy to share the highs and lows with guests. Similarly, if you’re new to Cairns, networking events are a great way to get your name out there.
Where is the best place to network and who should attend?
As the President of the Cairns Chamber of Commerce, I may come across as biased, but the Chamber hosts a monthly lunch as well as a quarterly ‘Beer, Business and Bubbles’ event. Both provide an excellent platform to network and do business in a safe positive environment, with likeminded people.
Although networking is typically thought of as taking place at a formal business function, the reality is, you can network anywhere. You could be at a weekly sporting event with your kids, buying a coffee from the same café each day or at celebrations such as birthdays. The best place for you to network will depend on your reason for networking. If it’s to grow your business, think about where your ideal clients or customers are likely to be. Do keep in mind that regardless of whether you are officially not at work, you’re always representing your employer whether you own the business or are employed by the business.
If you are a business owner who wants to attract more clients, you would probably attend events yourself but if it’s a more fun and relaxed occasion, that’s when you can include more of the back-office team. A big tip here is don’t all sit together – divide and conquer to get the most out of the experience. It’s not really networking if you’re all sitting at the same table.
What should I bring to a networking event?
Business cards are essential but also, make sure you wear your company uniform if you have one that’s appropriate. If you have a name badge, wear it as it will help fellow guests remember your name and it could act as an icebreaker to start up a new conversation.
I am new at networking. Help me!
Setting some goals is a great way to prepare. Maybe you want to talk to six people you’ve never met before and get their business cards? Assuming you know who the speaker is, do some research on them so you know where they have worked, what they are known for and can learn a bit more about the subject they will be talking about.
Like most things, the more you do it, the better you’ll become. Arrive early, not at the last minute. If you’re the first one there, the room will be calm rather than full of noisy chatter. You can meet the organising committee, introduce yourself, explain you are new to networking and ask them to introduce you to a few people who they think would be good to talk to.
Put your phone (and smart watch if you have one) on silent and out of sight so you can give the person you’re talking to, your full attention. Introduce yourself and your business with a firm handshake, a smile and make eye contact. I know this can be difficult if you’re shy, but it will become easier with practise.
Ask a simple question such as ‘have you heard this speaker talk before?’ but avoid controversial subjects such religion, politics (and Covid) and if you do get stuck, have something beyond work up your sleeve such as a podcast you’ve listened to or sport, both of which are surprisingly good subjects to get you out of an awkward silence. If you need more guidance, I highly recommend Toastmasters. These groups are wonderful for building confidence and public speaking skills in an environment which is safe and attended by people how are there for the same reasons you are.
Don’t be constantly scanning the room looking for someone else to talk to when you’re in conversation but if you are meeting someone, just explain to the person you are with that you need to keep a look out for them and that you aren’t being intentionally rude. Make sure you actively listen rather than zoning out and thinking about what you’re going to say next. If you do feel like you’re trapped in a conversation that you don’t want to be, have an exit strategy. This can be as simple as saying ‘’it’s been a pleasure, but I should keep moving as I need to network. Would you like to come with me?’’
Don’t interrupt two people who are deep in conversation – head for someone who is by themselves instead as the chances are, they will be new to networking too. Practise how you’re going to introduce yourself and your business. Work on an interesting, succinct elevator pitch using positive language that reflects your personality, without jarring the brand reputation of your company.
I survived the event – now what?
Congratulations! As soon as you get back to the office, make a note with the date, the event, the people you talked to, why you liked talking to them and maybe send a LinkedIn request. If you’re comfortable to and had a positive connection to someone, give them a call and arrange coffee. Reflect on what you did well and think about how you can improve next time.
Most of all, keep going to networking events regularly. You’ll soon get to know people and won’t give chatting to strangers a second thought. Once you’re at that point, keep an eye out for that shy ‘first timers’ and make sure you help them out too. Putting yourself out of your comfort zone is never easy and if you’re doing it, that’s wonderful – be proud!