Networking is in season along with strawberries and sun. Apparently it is so on trend that many corporate seats at Wimbledon lay empty this year whilst everyone drank Pims and networked away from the nets.
NETWORKING FOR THOSE WHO DISLIKE DOING IT (THAT’S MOST OF US)
I have never met a person, myself included, who enjoys the idea of a gathering where you are expected to hurl yourself around room or an event like a tennis ball and scoop up networking points. Let’s face it, most people loathe the idea of networking but feel it’s something they have to do with a large numbing drink in hand.
Why is networking usually so difficult? Because it is associated with many subliminal cues which all scream Pressure, Pretence, Promotion. I said ‘associated’. Not ‘is’. Relax: Networking is none of these things. It doesn’t have to be. You just have to do it differently and disregard all the advice you’ve been given before.
The Americans, our allies in so much, are not our friend when it comes to defining networking. Americans think networking is about ‘working the room’ and selling. I think we British know that it can be different: More about making creative connections, showing your curiosity, and putting conversation at the centre of it.
HELP IS AT HAND (SENSIBLE ADVICE AT LEAST)
Here’s what to do as the endless Summer bashes continue. Britain is a networking nation underneath it all, but to do it well you have to be subtle and exert soft power and soft skills – not brash one upmanship. You don’t even need to be an extrovert to be a good networker. I promise you.
So here are my networking coaching tips for getting the ball in the net at this summer’s parties.
1) Read The Room
You can tell a bad event when seven people are hunched over a guest list cross-ticking and finding you an illegible badge with a pin in it. This signals that the event is badly thought out. Ideally you should be only going to events you actually want to go to because interesting people are speaking or people you like and know will be there, and you trust the organisation putting the event on. If you arive at a bad room you just have to wait a little longer to get to enjoy yourself without help from the host.
2) Come in to Land
When the captain tells you to fasten your seat belt you know that you might land smoothly and be off on the jetway fast or could circulate through bumpy cloud fora while: It goes with the territory on an aeroplane. Arriving at an event is similar: You are at the mercy of a number of unknown elements between being up in the air and down on the ground and if you expect uncertainty and transition you are likely to relax rather than brace for impact. Expect to feel a little bumpy and don’t panic. Cortisol levels will rise…..and fall.
3) Find a Foothold
That room or roofdeck can look big and scary and horrible unless you catch the eye of someone you know or someone friendly finds you. Do whatever you can to gain abit of safe perspective – watch from the corner of the room and watch of people and their body language and catch their signals. Are people in little cliques and clusters gossiping or is someone being brave, bold or friendly and catching your eye? Observe and gain confidence from the corner.
4) Make Big Small Talk
Never be afraid to say what you feel or think, even as an opening gambit: Everyone is a ‘blended’ self of professional and personal. The sooner you bring your true self into the room and the conversation, whether talking about world events or the weather, the sooner you will relax and be more likely to make a good connection. You don’t have to be a clever-clogs. Often the best connections happen when you keep the conversation very personal from the offset.
5) The Eyes Have It
Oh, the eyes. Look into the eyes of the person you have just met and you can see everything quickly. If they are shifting their glance or squinting, it tells you they are stressed or not yet relaxed or possibly arrogant and ‘closed’ at that moment. Give them the benefit of the doubt and try and connect with them with a bit of real conversation. Once their eyes settle on your face, they have your attention. Return the serve and volley a bit.
6) Business Cards etiquette:
Only offer your business card if you think you actually want to stay in touch with someone and only ask for it in return on the same basis. Do not refuse a card but do not ask/give as a matter of course: It is perfectly OK to have an interesting conversation and move on without exchanging cards. You are not actually in a quarter final.
7) Stay Polite.
NEVER look over someone’s shoulder elsewhere or give sense that you are ‘working the room’: pointless and rude. If you decide it is time to move on be gracious, and tell them you are circulating and say goodbye kindly and nicely. Never give someone the impression you think someone else is more important: Everyone has equal value and if you forget that you are likely to miss out big time on some great intelligence or insight.
8) Enjoy the Moment.
And Finally…..A networking event is not an interview. It’s not an exam. It’s not a competition. And there is no such thing really as ‘a networking event’. It’s just an event. Don’t expect ‘results’. Just be in the moment and see if at the end you have had one really great, interesting, memorable conversation: That’s what success looks like, and it is what it feels like too: Real connection, not salesmanship or self promotion.
If you find this advice helpful, print it out and stick it on your fridge ready for the next hot networking season: Christmas.
Julia Hobsbawm founded Editorial Intelligence (http://editorialintelligence.com) which runs a ‘Connection Concierge’ advice service for how to make your conference party or event better for your team and your guests: email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.