What are the indispensable skills required by an entrepreneur? Drive, ambition, business nous? Yes, a big tick should go against all those. A good head for figures? Maybe. The ability to create a network of like-minded people, contacts and potential clients? Essential. Unless you can crack the skill of networking then running your own business may become a pretty lonely (and unprofitable) experience.
Successful networking isn’t returning from an event with a stack of business cards, having given out loads of your own cards in turn. How many times have you looked through your cards and had absolutely no recollection of the people who gave them to you? You need to meet the right people and make a good impression on them. Otherwise you’ll just be another card in someone else’s stack.
There’s a breed of people who seem to know everyone, who have a knack for striking up conversations with complete strangers and making their acquaintance. They even have a name: they’re connectors. But for the rest of us, networking can be a painful business. The prospect of working a room, pressing the flesh of people we don’t know can be a torture, not a pleasure. But you can become a good networker, even if you aren’t a social butterfly. It’s a skill you can learn, just like how to make a pitch or understand a balance sheet.
The best way to learn to become a good networker is by planning. Here are a few tips:
- Do your homework. There are plenty of networking events, so you need to choose which are the most useful to you: whether those are ones in your industry, for entrepreneurs, or for female start-up founders, for example. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck at an uninteresting function making small talk with someone you know you’ll never talk to again. What a waste of time!
- Choose your targets. Don’t turn up with the vague hope you’ll come across someone who might be useful to you. Research who else will be at the event; many event organisers will publish delegate lists in advance that you can peruse, which will allow you to select who you want to meet: it might be a specific person, or someone from a firm you want to get to know, or even people in a particular job role, such as Chief Information Officer or Procurement Manager.
- Don’t be a wallflower. Remember this isn’t a school disco so don’t hover on the fringes hoping someone will speak to you. Scan the name badges and once you’ve identified whom you want to speak to, go up and introduce yourself. Get in the game!
- Have some pre-prepared lines. Networking is a little like speed dating – you need to make a good impression quickly. Whether your target is the main speaker or the CEO of a firm you admire, know what you want to say to or ask them. Don’t over-rehearse: you don’t want to sound too stilted, but just enough to get a conversation started along the right lines.
- Don’t forget your manners. You don’t want to leave a trail of red-faced people who you’ve elbowed out of the way in your rush to meet your target. Once you strike up a conversation with someone, listen to and be interested in what they say. There’s nothing worse than speaking to a person who’s looking over your shoulder, scanning the room behind you for their next quarry. You never know when you might need that person.
- Don’t forget to follow up. This is a potential business contact, not a life partner, so don’t play it cool waiting for them to contact you first. When you return to your office, drop them a line telling them how good it was to meet them and that you’d like to keep in contact. Don’t forget to let them know how you can help them, not just how they can be useful to you.