You may be one of the many people who believe networking is difficult and demands a phony or pushy approach. Even self-proclaimed networkers often misunderstand how to network with authenticity and ease. If you think you might be stuck in your business or career because you can’t effectively network, keep reading. We’re going to dispel some of the myths around being an exceptional networker no matter your personality or profession.
Networking Myths That Just Won’t Die
A pre-pandemic article in Inc. Magazine succinctly summed up the seven biggest networking myths that even individuals who network frequently can still subscribe to:
1. "It's all about what you can do for me."
If your networking strategy is to look for the top-level people in your industry and bombard them with requests, you're doing yourself a major disservice (plus, you're probably being a pain). The best way to build an active, robust network is to master the law of reciprocity. Developing a reputation for being generous makes people more likely to take a chance on helping you. And who knows? Maybe the person you help will be in a position to help you down the road.
2. "Extroverts make the best networkers."
That's only true if you think that being a pro networker is the same as being the most popular person in the room. (It's not. More on that later.) Introverts looking to build a better professional network should play to their strengths by focusing on one-on-one conversations and personal referrals from people they already know -- the best way to form the kinds of strong relationships that bear fruit later.
3. "The bigger, the better."
Quality trumps quantity when building connections. Eschew the pointless name collecting and focus instead on high-quality connections with long-term value. That means curating relationships in order to build a diverse group of thought leaders and decision makers with varied backgrounds and expertise, who themselves are well-connected. Leave the popularity contests to the teenagers.
4. "Networking is slimy."
This is a big one. But the fact is, if you think networking is dirty, you're probably doing it wrong. Remember: Networking is just as much about finding people you can help as it is about finding people who can help you. A skilled networker creates relationships with professionals at every level across sectors and industries, and in doing so, generates opportunities for collaboration that benefit those same people and, occasionally, herself.
5. "Business cards count as connections."
When's the last time you looked through all the business cards in your desk drawer? That is, if you've even saved them at all. Business cards are useless without a real connection to the person behind the tiny scrap of card stock. Sure, they're great for sharing contact information with someone who wants to stay in touch with you, but first, you have to give him a reason to want to reach out.
6. "Start with small talk."
Stand down, old guard. While it used to be the networking norm to bond over sports and family before talking business, the new generation of professionals is happy to talk about work -- and, in fact, they expect it. It's not rude or boring to talk shop at a networking happy hour; indeed, starting a conversation about your professional goals is a great way to find people with whom you can have productive relationships. It's simple: if you're passionate about your work, lead with it.
7. "The only relationship organizer I need is my mind."
You'll never know who you don't know. Say you can mentally manage your primary network (the people in your contact list). What if a company need arises that can't be solved with those resources? Provided you've built a healthy network of well-connected individuals, it's a good bet that someone in your contact list (or your colleagues' lists) knows someone who's not, and that person can help. That's where technology becomes invaluable. A relationship management platform can provide a view into those critical secondary connections, and leave your brain free for actual strategy.
Sadly, these myths limit the potential for truly successful networking. The antidotes, which amplify networking’s power 10X (and generally make it a very enjoyable experience) follow:
Prepare to Be Your Best Self
Be sure to give yourself time to focus on your objectives both before and after the networking event. Don’t schedule other activities back-to-back right before or after you network, causing you to be rushed and flustered. Networking deserves your focus and full presence, or you are in the wrong place.
When the event is over, give yourself time to capture your follow-up activities and nurture new or budding relationships. This follow-up is where 90% of networkers fail badly. Share an introduction, and great piece of information, or send a note of gratitude to someone you appreciated conversing with.
Give Yourself Reasonable Goals
The most masterful networkers can have difficulty canvassing an entire room of people. Being in a large group can be distracting and unproductive unless you are prepared to navigate it. Before you arrive at the event, set a goal you can easily keep. Plan to talk to only a few people (for instance, your table mates, some leaders within the organization who can make introductions, or a couple of new people you can get to know), especially since you’re more likely to get into more in-depth conversations with people with whom you resonate.
If you can, choose those that will be most beneficial to meet before you even get there—not just as potential clients, but who perhaps serve the same sort of clientele, or might know people you want to connect with. That way, you’ll have a plan, and you can focus on the people you want to meet from the start. Having a plan will help you relax into the experience and project your authentic personality.
Let Someone Else Introduce You
Meeting new people is intimidating to many of us, and you know who you are and whether you might need an extra ounce of support. Having someone introduce you to the people you need to meet can take a lot of the pressure off. Not only that, it gives the person doing the introducing a position of power that benefits their brand. If you don’t know anyone at the networking event, go to the event organizer and ask them to make the introduction on your behalf.
Spend More Time Listening
Everyone loves to be listened to. Unfortunately, too many amateur networkers spend too much time talking about themselves, their offerings and their business. The pro move is to learn how to become an engaged listener. Keep your attention completely on the person you’re talking to. Ask pertinent questions. Offer your opinions only when asked, or when the other person is finished talking.
Why is this important? When someone feels listened to, they immediately have a better opinion of the one doing the listening. This makes you memorable in a good way. At the same time, this kind of conversation allows for more depth, building a stronger relationship right at the start.
Know How to Begin
Starting a conversation can be tricky. To keep from resorting to a mundane conversation about the weather or the event itself, have some rehearsed conversation starters ready to go. Some of my favorites are:
Ask what they love most about their work or business.
Ask what they are frustrated by right now.
Ask what they like about the organization and what they either get out of it, or hope to gain from it.
Ask what other organizations they belong to and why.
Ask who their ideal client is, or if there is someone they want to be introduced to (they are very likely to return the favor!)
Most people love talking about themselves. With the right question, you’ll very easily get the conversation going.
Don’t Expect Perfection
No one is great at networking the first time out. We forget business cards, jumble our elevator pitch and sit at a table of almost all our nearest competitors. Awkward encounters are to be expected. Should things go badly, chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. If things go especially badly, then give yourself a break. Get a drink, use the restroom, get a breath of fresh air before moving on to the next person. If you find yourself wanting to bolt for home, then make a deal with yourself. Set a time limit, giving it another 15 – 20 minutes before racing for the door. Who knows, you might find yourself wanting to stay after all.
Ignore the Mental Mind Games
Chances are you’ve already got a lot of preconceived notions about yourself and networking based on previous experience. Any inner voice trying to remind you of your so-called limitations, while trying to protect you, is also keeping you small. Thank her, and invite her to watch you prove her wrong. Tell yourself firmly that none of those messages are written in stone. You are learning and growing, and your talents must be exercised in order to become strong and second nature. Even if some of them are (for example you might have had a bad experience in the past), remind yourself that was then, this is now. Just because something happened before, doesn’t mean it will happen again. Learn and grow.
Have a Plan in Place for Afterwards
By the time the networking event is over, many of us are racing to the next obligation or heading into traffic somewhere. Any networking event includes the time there and back. This is where a little planning goes a long way. Block out at least 30 minutes on either side of the event on your calendar.
You likely spent a noticeable amount of money to be a part of a networking group, and perhaps more to attend the event itself. Make the most mileage out of that investment. The key is following up with the people you meet. By reminding them of the circumstance of the meeting, and some detail of the conversation, they’ll remember remember and enjoy the connection. Even at this point, leave the heavy sales pitch out of the mix. Your job is to build trust, and that happens with frequent and consistent connections. Connect on LinkedIn, share articles and blogs of interest. Introduce them to podcasters and be a supportive collaborator in between events.
I believe in these ideas so strongly that I am sponsoring the upcoming ProWIN November Luncheon here in Atlanta. I hope those of you who can will join me and put some of this into practice right away.
No networking event exists in a vacuum. In larger cities, like Atlanta, where I live and work, I run into a lot of the same familiar faces in a variety of networking settings. I see people at the women’s association one day and at the Meeting Professionals International the next. The chambers of commerce overlap with the International Speakers Association and the International Franchise Association.
I have met individuals through networking who have been in my corner for 30+ years. They have become friends, and as we reinvented ourselves, we were able to help one another grow and be more visible faster. Networking isn’t just about the sale. It is about your brand and the circle of like-minded individuals who believe in one another’s abilities and value.