The Harvard Business Review article: “Don’t Waste Your Time on Networking Events” got a lot of attention because I think it struck a chord with so many people. We all know that a bit like many team meetings, networking events can be a colossal waste of time.
Attending networking event after networking event and having very little to show for it is a classic ‘Busy Fool’ manoeuvre that we should all watch out to avoid.
Why do we so often fall in to this ineffectual networking trap? I think there’s two main reasons: one reason is the short-term, illusory sense of achievement it gives us. That gratifying sense of ticking a task of the list but failing to question the task’s actual value. In other words, we mistake activity for output. The second reason is we simply lack the skills to make the networking event worth our while.
Successful networking is about growing relationships with people worth knowing and fortunately there are some straight forward strategies that can help us to do just that. Here are six to consider:
1. Do your homework
If you can, check who else is going and decide who in particular you’d like to meet. Once you have set your sights on a few people, do a bit of internet stalking – check their LinkedIn and Twitter feed to see what connections and common interests you have, and what’s on their mind. Knowing where the common ground lies will make having a good conversation a lot easier. It also makes us more likeable. Research suggests we have a preference for people whom we perceive to be similar to ourselves in some way, so discovering and focusing our attention on commonalities is a great strategy.
2. Pretend you’re a detective
Every hear the expression ‘Interesting people are interested people.’? You already know everything there is to know about yourself, so don’t waste your valuable networking time talking about Numero Uno if you can help it. You’ll learn nothing and impress no-one. Do have a short, powerful introduction about what you do (NB Under 15 seconds, and not just your job title but something memorable about what your work actually involves / achieves). Beyond that though, focus on learning about others rather than talking about yourself. Demonstrate your interest in others by actively listening to them, using open-ended follow up questions (i.e. what, why, how questions). Studies show being a good listener will make you more likeable, and being likeable lies at the heart of being an excellent networker who gets good connections and leads wherever they go.
3. Ask not what this person can do for you.
A common mentality to networking is ‘What’s in it for me?’ and there are a two main reasons why this can be problematic. First of all, it can be difficult to tell whether or not a person will be useful to know on first meeting them. Opportunities usually emerge further down the line when you have built up a bit of a relationship and some trust, and not on the day that you meet. Second of all, the ‘What’s in it for me?’ mind-set is so unappealing that when we detect it in others – and we can usually sniff it a mile off – there’s a good chance it will alienate us and make us wary of them, rather than form the foundation of a productive connection. So the antidote is to flip the thinking on its head and ask ‘What’s in it for them?’ Ask yourself why getting to know and staying in touch with you will be beneficial to the other person? What information, contacts or encouragement do you bring? Work this part of the equation out and the the ‘What’s in it for you’ side will take care of itself.
4. Lever body language
Numerous scientific studies all say the same thing about this: your body language speaks loud and clear and leaves a lasting impression on others whether you are aware of it or not. So always begin with a handshake, remember to smile and keep good eye contact, and to absolutely maximize your likeability factor, be sure to nod a lot.
5. Have fun
A recent ComRes poll shows the majority of people feel uncomfortable while networking. To get good at it you have to find a way of making it enjoyable. The obvious answer to many, but not really the best approach, is to down plenty of Dutch courage if there happens to booze to hand. I mean what could possibly go wrong? A safer strategy is to ‘Gamify’ it. Make a points system, for example 5 points for every handshake. 10 for every LinkedIn connection afterwards, 25 for every enjoyable conversation you have. You can even think of some obscure and amusing vocabulary that you get points for skilfully slipping into conversations. The possibilities are endless. Then if you go in with a target in mind, say to score over 200 points by the end of the event, you will find yourself fully engaged. It’s even a funny conversational gambit – telling others at the event what you’re up to, about your ‘game’.
6. Keep in touch
Afterwards take a few notes on the professional interests of the people you meet and any personal information relevant for rapport building – for example if they’re going sailing in the Greek Islands that summer, jot that down. Anything in particular you bonded over at the event, write that down too. Then follow people up within 3 days to say ‘Great to have met you, let’s stay in touch’ and after that remember to share interesting, funny or useful stuff with them at least 2 or 3 times a year, with a friendly message checking in with them. And schedule these contacts, or else they won’t happen. With a rapidly growing network you’ll probably need a reminder system to keep it ticking over.
So back to the question this blog began with: are networking events worth it? Simple answer is yes, if you are any good at networking. The good news is, anyone can learn to be.