Networking: the dos and don’ts
Networking, both in person or online, is essential for all businesses, but especially start-ups. “If you build it, they will come,” might have worked for Noah and his ark, but your future partners, clients and customers are going to need a bit of signposting.
Here are three dos and don’ts of networking for any business owner who’s cringing at the prospect (and probably over-thinking it).
Treat people as human beings…
When networking in person, it can be tempting to approach people with a sales pitch. This is fine if those people have specifically asked for a sales pitch – but it can come across as a bit over-eager if they haven’t. Similarly, while some people may prefer a straight-talking, more direct style of networking, even they won’t appreciate being interrogated. Rudeness doesn’t magically become assertiveness when transferred to a business setting, just as people don’t become any less human when they put on a smart suit.
When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, going off on a little tangent about your mutual love for a particular TV show doesn’t mean you’ve taken your eyes off the prize. Networking is about building relationships, and you can’t do that without a bit of general chit-chat. This applies even when you’re communicating with someone online. Of course, email and messaging services don’t allow you as much freedom to go off-topic, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t mention the weather.
…but don’t get too personal
People want to do business with people they like, but that doesn’t mean they’d want to do business with their best friend. Steer clear of any topics of conversation that might veer into controversial or personal territory. Discuss a policy or a piece of legislation that affects your industry, but don’t start talking about your own political beliefs – especially when it comes to Brexit. Moan about nurseries’ awkward closing times, but don’t boast about your child’s advanced reading age. Probably steer clear of religion altogether. Definitely avoid bringing up anything to do with your love life.
When networking, you will encounter people who are so passionate about their work (or a particular aspect of their work) that if presented with the opportunity, they simply will not stop talking about it. You will also encounter people who are extremely dissatisfied with a particular element of their job – so much so that they appear to have written a one-man play on the subject, and they are intent on performing it for you.
With both types, you are going to find it difficult to get a word in edgeways. But avoid the temptation to interrupt, speak over them or excuse yourself – at least for a little while. Instead, just listen. You’ll be picking up valuable information about their precise role, any needs they may have (and whether they are being fulfilled), and their own contacts. If necessary, ask them to elaborate on a particular statement, but then let them get on with it. Networking is not only telling people what you can do for them and asking them what they can do for you – it can be a useful information gathering exercise.
…but don’t be a doormat
At the same time, you shouldn’t feel as if you have no choice but to listen. If you’re being steamrolled, it is perfectly fine, and often advisable, to excuse yourself politely.
Alternatively, you can simply not allow yourself to be silenced – that is, when your bullish conversation partner speaks over you, don’t stop. The idea here is not to launch into a shouting match, but to calmly stand your ground. This may earn you the respect of the person you’re trying to talk to. (Equally, it may just annoy them, but sometimes that’s a risk worth taking). If you’re concerned about remaining articulate in this situation, practice speaking with the radio on loudly in the background.
Don’t give up too soon…
Anyone who has attended more than a handful of networking events will be familiar with the sinking feeling that comes with seeing your conversation partner’s eyes drift over your shoulder. When this happens, it can be a bit of a blow to your pride. But you need to quash those insecure thoughts flashing through your head – they’re an unnecessary distraction.
You don’t know at this stage whether you’re boring the person you’re speaking to. They may just be scanning the room out of habit, or even nerves. They may be trying to identify a person they’re sure they recognise, but can’t for the life of them work out where from. Don’t assume that they don’t consider you worthy of their time. Resist the urge to admit defeat, and try your best to regain their attention. One way to do this is to engage them with a question. If that doesn’t work, and they’ve definitely got their eye on another person in the room (and you know who that person is), suggest that you both go over and talk to them.
…but know when to let go
But sometimes you’re simply not going to be able to get your conversation partner to focus on you. If they’re champing at the bit to get away, you should let them. You can do so gracefully by making some friendly remark along the lines of, “Well, I had better let you mingle,” or just telling them that you’re off to get another drink. There is nothing to gain by latching on to someone: in doing so, you not only risk looking a little desperate, but you limit your own opportunities for further networking. Like all traits, persistence can be both positive and negative – and like all traits, it becomes negative when it’s taken too far.
It’s understandable to find the artificiality of networking off-putting, or the demand to be sociable pressurising, but practice makes perfect, and the more you put yourself out there, the easier it will get.