Entrepreneurism: The Importance of Networking, Part 2

Stephen DeAngelis

July 22, 2011

In part one of this two-part series on networking, I talked about various networking venues you might consider. In this post, I want to discuss techniques you might try when you find yourself face-to-face in a networking situation. Colleen DeBaise claims, “Networking is one of the most valuable (and inexpensive) forms of marketing. Many successful business owners are master networkers who can walk into a room full of strangers, make a connection and handily attract a new client, partner or investor.” [“How to Network – Live & In Person,” Wall Street Journal, 26 October 2009] Not everyone, however, is a master networker. In another article, she observes, “Not everyone is comfortable at networking events.” [“How to Network – When You’re Shy,” Wall Street Journal, 23 February 2011]

 

Fortunately, in the former article, DeBaise writes, “Networking is a skill that can be learned.” The most important thing you must learn, she claims, is how to get “yourself in the right spot— and that means interacting with people who can potentially help your business.” She then offers four other tips:

Forget the artificial sales pitch. Keep the conversation natural. Share information about you and your company, but not in a way that’s canned. Asking other people questions about themselves, too, creates opportunities to share what you’re doing without the conversation seeming like it’s all about me-me-me.

Communicate your passion. Not only can you win people over with your enthusiasm for your product or service, but an upbeat manner is often contagious. Getting other people to share their passion, too, helps create a memorable two-way conversation.

Don’t commandeer the conversation. The most successful networkers are charismatic people who make the person they’re speaking to feel special. Look other people in the eye, really listen to what they have to say and guide them to topics they want to talk about.

Keep in touch. You’ll likely end up exchanging business cards— but that’s where this new relationship starts, not ends. Make sure to call or send follow-up e-mails or notes with a reminder about what you can do for them.”

Although DeBaise recommends forgetting the sales pitch, having a rehearsed elevator speech is always a good idea. Having your thoughts clear in your head makes it easier to include them in casual conversation. If you don’t have a prepared pitch, you can easily end up missing a golden opportunity. I really like DeBaise’s recommendation about making the other person feel important rather than trying to focus the conversation on your business. If people like you, they will be willing to talk with you again. Another individual proffering networking advice is Dennis Grubbs [“Entering And Exiting Networking Conversations,” Jobfully, 4 February 2011]. About entering and exiting a conversation, he writes:

“For many people (including myself), networking at social and professional events can seem like a very intimidating process. Two of the trickiest parts: How do enter into a networking conversation, and equally important, how do you properly end one? Starting a conversation can be the most intimidating part of networking. It sets the tone for everything else. How do you determine when a good opportunity has come up to start a conversation?

  • “Keep an eye out for people who are alone. Not only are they the easiest to start a conversation with, but you might also be helping someone who feels uneasy about the networking situation
  • “When joining a group conversation, look for people who are positioned to allow people to join. Avoid a closed circle of people. A U-shape invites others to join.

“After you identify the person or group you wish to speak with, you need to have a good intro ready:

  • “Keep it light. Stay away from controversial topics such as religion, politics, etc
  • “If you are approaching an individual, start with hello and volunteer your name and a handshake. Ask what brings them to the event, or something about them. Get them talking about their background.
  • “Once you make a connection, resist the urge to launch into your pitch. Ask about what they do and their background, listen and respond to what you’re hearing. For more, read ‘Using Your Elevator Pitch Effectively’.
  • “Approaching a group you may lead with ‘May I join you?’ or ‘I hope I’m not interrupting, I’m …’
  • “Follow the lead of the group. Don’t take over their conversation but listen first to what they are discussing then join in.
  • “Easy questions for a group include ‘How do you all know each other?’ and ‘What brings you here tonight?'”

Those are all excellent suggestions and fit neatly with those offered by DeBaise. Networking events, however, are about meeting as many potential contacts as possible. In order to meet a number of people, you can’t be engaged for too long with any particular individual or group. Disengaging from a conversation can be awkward, even embarrassing. That’s why I was impressed that Grubbs offered some advice on how to disengage while leaving “a good last impression as you step away.” He advises:

 

  • “One way to exit is to introduce the person to someone you know, or to ask them to introduce you to someone you would like to meet. You may say ‘Oh, there’s my friend Ralph. Shall I introduce you?’
  • “Be mindful of your body language (ie tapping your foot or glancing around) so you don’t appear rude
  • “Even if you are ready to move on, stay engaged with the person until you can make a graceful exit
  • “If you are having trouble breaking away, you can also suggest you wander towards the refreshments or other attractions in the room
  • “Before you leave, exchange contact information and establish follow-up
  • “Thank the person for talking with you
  • “When exiting a group conversation, you may say ‘Nice to meet you all, will you please excuse me?’
  • “If you see someone else you know, consider inviting that person into the group rather than leaving the group to join him or her. Facilitating new connections makes you a helpful networker.”

 

Just like it is important to practice an elevator speech, Grubbs recommends practicing “your intro, questions, and exit strategies with friends and family. Like many other things, it gets easier with practice.” DeBaise’s colleague, Kelly Eggers, offers seven tips about things you shouldn’t do when networking [“Seven Networking No-Nos,” Wall Street Journal, 23 February 2011] She writes, “It might seem like a lot of pressure, but remembering the things you shouldn’t do may help make networking a bit easier.” Here is her list of “seven of networking’s biggest no-no’s”:

1. Don’t arrive late. To make things easier on yourself, time your arrival so you can maximize the interactions you’re most interested in having. ‘Especially for people who typically shy away from networking, the inclination is to arrive on the later side,’ says [Devora Zack, president of Only Connect Consulting]. ‘The opposite is a much better strategy. Being the first person there, it’s calmer, laid back, and people haven’t yet settled into groups. You won’t feel like there’s no one to talk to.'”

That’s pretty good advice. Remember how difficult Grubbs indicated it could be trying to enter a group already engaged in discussion. Eggers continues:

2. Don’t just stand there. This is not the time to wait around for people to approach you. You need to work the room—even if you’re on the shy side. There are ways to step outside your comfort zone and avoid awkwardness. Start off by asking questions, Ms. Zack suggests. And don’t worry about impressing the person you’re speaking with—just act naturally. ‘Many people think they’re bad at networking,’ she says. The key is to work with, rather than fight against, your natural communication style. That way, ‘what were liabilities become your greatest strengths,’ she says.”

For some people networking can be excruciating; but, remember that other people are there for the same reason. They want to meet you. Your story is probably just as compelling as others in the room and nobody knows your story better than you do. Although you attend networking events to meet people, Eggers says you don’t need to meet everybody.

3. Don’t feel like you need to talk to everyone. As a budding business owner or executive, you might enter a networking event with a ‘more the merrier’ mentality when it comes to making new connections. However, it might be advantageous to take a ‘less is more’ stance instead. ‘It’s better to meet fewer people and create a deeper, lasting connection than simply talking to everyone in the room,’ Ms. Zack says. Instead of going to a networking event and grabbing 40 business cards in two hours, speak with fewer people for a longer period of time. Give each person you talk to at least five minutes to get to know you—and you them—before you move on, she advises. This way, you’ll leave networking events energized by new, true connections rather than tuckered out from meeting too many people.”

My only caution here is that you don’t attend an event to make friends. You’re looking for contacts who can help your business. If you meet someone who clearly is not a good fit, move on. Time is precious at such events. Eggers continues:

4. Don’t come unprepared. Once a new contact tells you what they’re specifically looking for in terms of products or services, you need to be ready to tell them how your specific experience lines up with their needs. Your goal isn’t to hard-sell them right then and there—instead, it should be to get them interested in you and what you have to offer. To do that, you need to be prepared with an understanding of what everyone from an investor to a potential client will need, and be armed with the most relevant, useful information to show that you have a solution that works for them. What’s ‘useful,’ you ask? Results. ‘Don’t stand there and tell them what you do, tell them what results you get,’ says business coach Craig Jennings in New York. ‘Have examples of a situation, a problem and a solution that you can say in two breaths.’ Also, keep in mind that what an investor might find useful is likely different than what a customer wants to hear—so having a mental catalog of a wealth of your previous experiences will help you fill all kinds of niches.”

That advice harks back to something I wrote yesterday: “What do you hope to accomplish? Are you looking for investors or customers or even employees? Obviously, the kind of networking you do and the type of events you attend differ depending on your objectives.” Whatever your objectives, I agree that being prepared for the event is crucial.

5. Don’t forget the big picture. The bottom line is that, once you leave a networking event, you want the contacts and connections you’ve made to follow up with you and your services in the future. ‘You should know your production and delivery capabilities, and be able to set a realistic expectation for potential customers,’ says Frank Dadah, general manager of financial contracts with Winter Wyman, a Boston staffing firm. You’re trying to maintain the image of your company, and if you’re not prepared to answer detailed questions that cover the ins and outs of what you have to offer, or if you can’t offer it to them in a timely manner, they’ll move on—fast—to someone who can.”

Again, preparation is the key to making the most of networking events. Eggers continues:

6. Don’t try to multi-task. Within the first few minutes of meeting someone new, you probably don’t whip out a notebook to write down what they’re saying—and that should be a rule for networking events, as well. Instead of being distracted by a pen and paper, focus intently on the conversation you’re having. After you’ve grabbed a business card and stepped away, jot down a few things that will help you jog your memory when you follow up with them later.”

The key to most successful relationships is the ability to listen and make the other person feel like they have your full attention. Time and again I have read articles about successful people in which acquaintances, speaking about the successful person, have stated that when they were with them they felt like they were important and had that person’s full attention. Eggers’ final suggestion is about following up.

7. Don’t forget to follow up. ‘If you’re not following up, you’re not networking,’ says Ms. Zack. ‘You should stay in touch, without thinking about what you’ll get out of the relationship.’ Within 48 hours of your first meeting, you should email a note that pinpoints the most important parts of your earlier conversation, so your contact remembers who you are specifically. A timely turnaround will show that you’re both interested and available to continue the conversation. ‘Send them a link to a project you discussed, or ask them how the game they were going to that night ended up,’ advises Ms. Zack. ‘Give them something that is useful to them.'”

If, as DeBaise claims, “networking is one of the most valuable forms of marketing,” then networking techniques are some of the most valuable skills that you must master. The recommendations and suggestions offered by DeBaise, Grubbs, and Eggers are all well thought out and explained. You would do well to spend some time refining them before you head out to your next networking event.