The word "networking" can conjure up the picture of the sleazy salesperson trying to get you to buy something you don't want or need.
When I first had my consulting practice, I joined a networking group. At that time, I was often hired by government to work with non-profits, so in terms of getting business from the other participants, that really wasn't my goal. It was more that I wanted to connect with other business women; it was lonely working at home on my own.
What I found at these events is people would ask what I do, I'd say I worked in social services, and the eyes would glaze over. I could sense the person looking over my shoulder to see who she wanted to meet next. So she would quickly hand me her card and move on. To me there was nothing meaningful in this interaction and it was one of the reasons I started Company of Women.
Here are my rules of engagement:
1. People do business with people they know, trust and like, so you have to take the time to get to know them.
I would rather spend my time with one or two people and get into a meaningful discussion and get to know about their business than rush around playing what I call the business card shuffle. It is not all about the number of cards you can collect in an evening, it's about building relationships.
2. Take an interest -- ask questions of the person you have just met.
Rather than launching into what you do, ask about the other person. Have some open-ended questions in your back pocket that will generate an interesting conversation.
3. It's not all about you.
Think about who you know that you can connect the person with -- a potential customer, an alliance. Even if you can't use their service or are not interested in their product, you may know of someone who is. When you help someone, they are more likely to help you.
4. And she told two friends...
You never know who knows who. It truly is six degrees of separation. And you just never know when you are going to meet someone who has the right connections for you. It isn't always at networking meetings -- it could be at social events, at the hairdresser, whatever. So have your business cards with you, and when you change purses, transfer them.
5. Tell stories.
When someone does ask you what you do, have some stories to tell that illustrate your work. Avoid jargon or no one will understand you. And stay away from the slick infomercial -- to me, it just comes across as insincere and rather rehearsed.
6. Have a plan.
Before you go to a networking event, set a goal for yourself. Think about who you want to meet. Be sure you are being realistic. So many people go to networking meetings thinking they will leave with business having closed a deal. Oh that it was that simple. Don't expect to make sales, then getting a lead will be a bonus.
7. Take a buddy.
If going to networking meetings scares you, take a buddy. It is always easier for someone else to sell you, than for you to sell yourself. Try to mingle though and not stay glued to your friend's side all night.
8. There's strength in numbers.
All of us have competition, but have you ever thought of partnering or forming an alliance with your competition? There's a thought. Sometimes when you take an abundance attitude -- that there is enough business for everyone -- and you connect and refer to one another, you both gain.
9. Follow up.
So you've got all these cards. Now what? Follow up as soon as possible with an email -- it can just be to say how much you enjoyed meeting them. If you volunteered to send information or make an introduction, do it.
10. Stay connected.
I often see articles that I know would be of interest to someone else that I've met, or come across a lead that will be helpful, so I pass it on. It is an easy way to stay connected and it makes you memorable as someone who is genuinely interested in helping others.
11. Be yourself.
It is all too easy to put on a façade, to wear a mask and behave as you think the group requires -- but then you are not real, you're not yourself. Be confident in who you are, trust your gut instincts and show the world the wonderful person that you are.