For business owners, networking can be a great way to make new connections, find new customers, and discover suppliers who can help your business run better. However, it can also be a daunting prospect.
Here’s how to make the most of it.
Picking the right event
Sue Ellson has been running local networking events for 20 years and says that while networking is a great exercise, you have to pick carefully to make the best use of your time and energy.
“Ideally, you will do a bit of a reconnaissance exercise and work out which networks could be useful for you and then pick your top three and go to them on a more regular basis,” she says.
“Going to random events doesn’t help you develop relationships and can be very time-consuming.”
Ideally, one of the networks you choose can be a professional association for your industry or profession, she adds.
“Another way to network is to be a guest speaker. You are promoted to the entire database, then to the guests on the day, and if you have an offer, you can follow up with several people afterward. But don’t make it a sales pitch – provide useful information.”
Ms Ellson also advises that you should add everyone you meet in person, online, via email, or DM to your LinkedIn network as a connection so they can always find you in the future.
Meanwhile, Wendy Lloyd Curley, a Networking Trainer at Strategic Networking, says to think of group networking events “like a funnel”.
“Meet people there and follow up with them on social media (like LinkedIn). If you believe that it would be beneficial to you both to get to know each other better, make an effort to book them for a Zoom call or an in-person one-to-one meeting.”
Getting over the fear
So, once you get to an event, how do you make the most of the precious time you’ve invested and quell any awkward feelings?
“At big events, go for the smaller groups or individuals on their own. Arrive early because it’s much easier to mix, and leave last because those people will always be up for a chat,” says Ms Ellson.
And if you’re an introvert, “have an escape plan ready”, and try to speak to three people rather than forcing yourself to speak to 30, she adds.
“Don’t go name tag shopping. It is very rude – but have the LinkedIn app on your phone and make sure you connect on the spot and have a few business cards handy just in case.”
Ms Lloyd Curley recommends that in big groups, set your intention before you go.
“Who do you want to meet… your target market, but also suppliers, collaborators, and even industry competitors. As you meet people, you can let them know the kind of connections that will be helpful for you,” she says.
What should you talk about?
Networking event conversations can be awkward, so preparation and curiosity are key.
“If you ask open-ended questions, it can lead to the next topic. If worst comes to worst, you can talk about the weather or sport! I find food and travel will always get people talking,” says Ms Ellson.
“Remember, it is important to listen. Your turn will come naturally, and then they will ask about you. Be courteous to everyone, including the staff, because people watch that.”
Ms Lloyd Curley recommends having some stories up your sleeve.
“In smaller interactions, you may have the opportunity to introduce yourself and to share a little bit about your business. Be prepared for this by having a good client story ready. One that demonstrates your expertise and describes your ideal target market well,” she says.
“Practise this story so that you can tell it succinctly if you’re given, say, 60 seconds to say hi. A story will be much more memorable than listing all of the things that you do.”
She concludes by adding that quality connections are more important than a high quantity of connections, but it’s normal to want to end a conversation with someone and meet some other people.
“My advice is to tell them that you’d like to follow up with them again away from the event and would like to either have a copy of their business card or to connect with them on LinkedIn. That way, you’re not ending the relationship while you end the conversation.”
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