We all want to do better at networking. Business benefits aside, it’s a social activity and most of us want to be popular.
But the environment at networking events is very forced. You are in a room with a crazy number of strangers – and a scattering of people you kind of know. Everyone has an agenda. Time is limited.
Networking can be stressful, especially when you don’t do it that often. And it is easy to find excuses for not attending networking events. My go-to favourites were “Don’t have the time” and “Don’t get anything out of it”.
For many years, I made the mistake of categorizing networking as an extra – an elective activity for folks who enjoy that sort of thing. But experience has taught me that networking matters. Done poorly, it can be a waste of time. Done well, it can open the doors to a multitude of personal and business opportunities.
To Get Better At Networking You Need To Practice
I began consciously trying to get better at networking about three years ago. At first, it was frustrating. The intensity level at some events was overwhelming and I often felt adrift in a sea of jargon and elevator pitches.
I would come home with a pocket full of business cards but not be able connect faces to names. And I would blush when I mentally reviewed my own performance and realized that I had fallen into a bucket of business jargon and wound up talking nonsense.
Business networking is like any other professional skill. The learning curve can be steep. You need to be persistent. Keep trying until you get the hang of it.
Practice makes perfect – but only if you are open to self-improvement. You may have some bad habits that need to be ditched.
Ironically, you likely picked them up by attending events and learning from what everyone else was doing. But to do better at networking, you have to start having meaningful, productive conversations and these habits get in the way.
Bad Networking Habit #1: Trying To “Work The Room”
STOP trying to “work the room”. The goal is to make genuine connections with people. That’s impossible to do when you are busy fake smiling and hand shaking like a local politician in an election year.
To be better at networking, you need to think quality instead of quantity. You don’t need 30 seconds of meaningless banter with every person in the room. You need a brief but effective conversation with two or three people who may become clients, colleagues, or friends.
Before the event, do some research. Think about who you really want to talk with. Some events will have lists of attendees. In other situations, you may have to play detective and troll through membership lists.
What is most interesting about this person? Do you have things in common? How would forging a relationship with this person benefit you – and them?
By doing a little advance planning, you will be able to walk into the room with clearer – and calmer – objectives.
Bad Networking Habit #2: Pushing Your Business Cards
DO NOT begin a conversation by pushing your business card at someone. This is like tossing your phone number at a stranger in a bar – aggressive and disconcerting.
Instead, take a breath, smile, and say “hello”. Introductions are important and should not be rushed.
Leave the business-card-swap until the end of the conversation. By that time, exchanging contact information should feel more natural.
When it’s the right time, ask for their business card before giving them yours. This is polite and it is a nice way to segue into setting up a follow up conversation.
Bad Networking Habit #3: Rushing Into Your Elevator Pitch
An “elevator pitch” is a fast, catchy way of describing what makes your product or service unique and valuable. It is important to be able to communicate your greatness quickly and succinctly and I encourage everyone to learn how to make a great elevator pitch.
But no matter how great it is, it is a big mistake to launch into your pitch too quickly.
Like your business cards, your elevator pitch should stay in your pocket until the moment is right. And the right moment is NEVER at the beginning of a conversation.
People like to talk about themselves. This is a universal truth. So, if you want to start things off on the right foot, always lead by asking them questions about themselves and what they do. This is the best way to establish rapport AND you learn more about their business. This places you in a better position to identify potential opportunities for your company to work with theirs.
Bad Networking Habit #4: Trying Too Hard
People can smell desperation a mile away. And it is a HUGE turnoff.
Be aware of the warning signs. If you hear your voice going up an octave, or you start to laugh that strange laugh that sounds nothing like your normal guffaw, find an excuse to disengage.
A trip to the bathroom is always a good out. Take a few deep breaths and settle down.
Bad Networking Habit #5: Trying To Close A Deal
I have NEVER seen anyone successfully “close” a business deal at a networking event. But I have watched many people try.
Truthfully, I think this bad habit is often a natural extension of the other four habits I have already discussed…
You arrive with the mindset that you are going to “work the room”. You push your business cards at people and attack them with your elevator pitch. If you’re lucky, you trap at least one attendee, probably because they aren’t that experienced at networking either, and they don’t know how to politely get away.
You excitedly talk AT them for awhile and then the odd mix of nervousness, social discomfort, and feigned bravado pushes you into “sales” mode. And you actually try to make a sale.
The best case scenario in this situation is that everyone feels awkward for a moment (as though you have farted). If you are lucky, someone else enters the conversation and you escape.
In the worst case scenario, you keep trying to “make something happen” and burn a bridge.
To be better at networking you need to understand that networking events are the place for forging positive connections, not for making sales.
End a productive conversation by asking them for their business card and by providing yours (the one you didn’t push at them when you first met). Set up a time to re-connect or agree to email later.
Becoming better at networking has benefited by my company in many ways. I have kickstarted relationships with clients, suppliers, collaborators, and employees at networking events. I have enhanced my professional profile within industries that are important to my success and I have made several truly good friends.
Even if your company is well-established, has a solid client base, and is doing well, it is never a bad idea to venture out there and see what more you can do. When you mix and mingle with other people, you learn about the things they are doing. For me, this is the most important reason to network – and to continually hone my networking skills. Hearing about other people’s good ideas gives me good ideas!