The key is to plan your networking. Think about what you want to do with your networking – develop sales contacts, increase your knowledge base, learn more about your industry, move your business into a new geographic region? Identify the kind of people you’d ideally like to make connections with or the companies you want to meet.
Then it’s down to research, research, research. Are there online communities and groups that are relevant to your targets? Sector or trade bodies? Professional groups? Political, environmental or charitable communities? Academic or technical bodies? Local organisations such as Chambers of Commerce? The list is endless and the knack is to identify a handful of groups that will maximise your potential connections to the relevant people. Don’t go aimlessly to every networking opportunity that comes your way but plan and focus on the ones that will really benefit your business or your knowledge base.
Once you’re there, how do you make the most of the opportunity? Prepare beforehand. One of the tried and tested methods is known as the “elevator pitch” – imagine you were to meet a potential contact in a lift and they ask you “What do you do?” You need to be able to express yourself in less than 20 seconds and make an impact on your listener. So be concise – speak sincerely, with passion and confidence. Work out a succinct description of who you are, what you do and why you are different. And be able to deliver it in a very short space of time. Remember, less is more. And always try to end with a question to engage your listener – “So, what are you hoping to get out of this event?”
If there are key individuals you want to meet, do some research on them beforehand and target them when you arrive. Nothing is more flattering that people knowing something about you – so to open a conversation by complimenting them on a new sales win you read about or a new factory they have opened. That bit of effort will mark you out as someone who takes an interest and knows his or her stuff.
In business, it’s true to say that what goes around comes around. Reputations are built on confidence and trust. So treat your networking with integrity. Share information, contacts and ideas with contacts. Make time to listen closely to other people as well as talking about your business. Ask questions and be interested. Don’t ever be looking over someone’s shoulder to see if there’s someone more important in the room – nothing is more demeaning, and who’s to say the person you’re talking to won’t be a CEO of the future?
Follow up on any commitments you make at such events – if you say you’ll send someone a link to a business book you particularly liked, then do it. Even better send them a copy of the book! Always carry a pen and some business cards to make a note of any commitments.
And in general, be positive, confident and enthusiastic. Networking sometimes takes time to pay off but it does work when you do it well and in a sustained and planned way. If you only take from your network, it won’t work – make sure you give and share and the benefits will be manifold.