The concept of networking, for many, can be a terrifying one. Entering a room full of people, and selling your services or product requires a large amount of confidence and bravery, especially as many networking events can feel very pushy and male-dominated.
In a recent BBC feature, Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer for women’s business research and advocacy group Catalyst, said: “Women value authenticity in relationships. Sometimes the notion of meeting someone and then looking to them for help, or advice, or contacts in business, often feels just a little uncomfortable. Men seem to do it much more naturally.” For women, there tends to be more importance placed on building long-term working relationships, which is why a more informal, relaxed setting, such as coffee clubs tend to work well.
Like many skills, successful networking is something that needs to be learned – you need to spend time developing your confidence, pitch and persuasion skills. As a freelancer or small business owner, it’s an essential part of building a successful business. Relying on social media and the odd referral is fine but it’s unlikely to lead to sustained growth in your business.
So how do you get over the fear of networking?
Here’s ten ways you can survive your first networking event.
1) Firstly, you need to find the right networking event. Remember – the internet is your friend. If you want to start slowly, check out networking sites in your area on Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. There are plenty of different groups to choose from, varying from communities for working parents to networks especially for digital entrepreneurs.
For women, try any of the Ladies Who Latte groups – these are networking groups aimed primarily at women, with a relaxed, friendly atmosphere (and plenty of tea and coffee). You may also want to look on Facebook for Gossip Girl groups in the South East area, which is a place for women to share information about local services, and promote their businesses on the first of each month.
Have a look for your location, followed by the term Gossip Girls (e.g. Wokingham Gossip Girls), to see if there’s one in your area.
2) Your next step is to look for a local networking event. Check out EventBrite for local events, or ask your contacts which networking events they’d recommend.
3) Still struggling? Jump on Twitter and look for your local hashtag. Most areas have one, and networking events are usually quick to use them.
Alternatively, you may prefer to go to a networking event that specialises in your area of business, which may mean heading to a larger city if you’re not already based there. Larger events are designed to make it easier for new networkers to begin.
4) Once you’ve arranged to go to a networking event, tweet about it. It’s a great way to let others know about the networking event, and see if anyone else you know is attending.
5) Email the organiser, and ask if they would be able to introduce you to a few people when you arrive. If you’re feeling really nervous, tell them. Also, check the dress code – there’s nothing worse than turning up dressed in your smartest clothes, to find everyone else is in jeans.
6) Arrive early. It’s easier to meet people when you’re the first there. Arriving on time, or five minutes late, usually involves walking into a packed room of people who are all chatting to each other, which can be an intimidating way to start the event.
7) The key to being a great networker isn’t about having the perfect pitch, blinding people with facts or being the loudest person in the room. It’s about being the best listener.
The most interesting people are those that are interested in others – and it’s much easier to spot a potential opportunity when they tell you about their business, than barging up and reeling off your general pitch. It’s all about the ability to subtly find out about opportunities and convince others, rather than going in for a hard sell.
8) How do you describe what you do? Do you tell them what you do, or do you tell them how what you do can help them? You’ll grab their attention more by going for the latter, so work out how you can summarise what you do quickly and simply.
9) Don’t spend the entire networking event talking to one person. It may be tempting, but you’ll get more out of it if you make the effort to move around. If you’re nervous about doing so, try going round with a networking partner.
10) Follow up. If you’ve made some great contacts, drop them an email the next day telling them it was great to meet them. Don’t spam them with your entire pitch – it’s better to ask if they have any requirements and go from there. Try Contactually to keep on top of this.
Networking in simple terms is just an opportunity to have a chat with other people who own businesses. Don’t pressurise yourself to land a new business deal or sell a product during your first networking event – your only aim for the first couple of networking events is to walk in, chat to a few people and enjoy yourself.