RE: WOMEN is a women’s group for anyone who works in property. It holds regular meet-ups with workshops and guest speakers, where invitees can network afterwards. With that in mind, I wanted to give you an insight into my experience in this tricky area and how it can help your business thrive.
The dictionary defines networking as “exchanging information and forming professional connections through informal social meetings” but to many of us it means stultifying events in a room full of reluctant professionals – leaving with a handful of business cards that go straight in the bin.
But it needn’t be that way. What if we’re doing it wrong? What if the secret of successful networking is to stop thinking of it as organised happenings, and recognise it as an attitude we can apply to a variety of relationships? The fact is that galvanising your existing networks can have a dramatic impact on your business.
Focusing on the right people
Networking has been critical for my business. Firstly, to generate candidates and clients. Secondly, to gain insider advice and knowledge that I would never have found through traditional means such as trawling the Internet. I have generated far better value from networking by ignoring the conventional approach and, instead, by seeking out a wider, less formal pool of people with valuable experience.
I have been picky about attending events because so many are a waste of time. Instead, my networking efforts happened naturally, without any particular targets. I only connected with people I felt I could learn from, including my friends, family and acquaintances. Engaging with all those people – from relatives to past candidates and previous clients – helped me learn by continually challenging or reaffirming what I was doing.
Everyone has something to offer you
I always thought I wasn’t a networker because I hated the traditional way of doing it. This seemed to be based on ‘take’ – people would stop talking to me mid-conversation if they felt there were no opportunities to do business or make money. I now know that’s such a short-sighted mentality. Everyone you speak to is valuable. You never know who else they know, what journey they are on or even what you might be able to offer them. Networking with that mindset has given me a powerful black book of people for whom I have created opportunities, and who have done the same for me.
Having thousands of friends on Facebook does not guarantee a fulfilling social life. In the same way, amassing a huge network of connections is no guarantee that they will bring value to your business. So how do you maximise existing relationships and galvanise them in a way that does?
I advocate prioritising carefully. Make connections based on recommendations or approach people you admire and think you could learn from. Don’t simply spread yourself thinly with everyone you come across and hope that something clicks.
Make contact with people you admire. Work out what you want and need to learn, and see if there is anything you can give back to make it beneficial for both parties. But don’t approach direct competitors, as it puts them in an awkward position.
The fear factor
Some say that people get nervous before networking events because of a fear of rejection. It is part of our self-preservation mechanism to imagine what will happen in a difficult or frightening situation. The problem is that those who perceive themselves as socially anxious are more likely to think they will embarrass themselves in potentially stressful social situation. Unfortunately this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What’s more, fear releases stress hormones, which play havoc with the cognitive functions that are crucial to networking success. Cortisol is released into the brain, which makes it harder to think creatively and remember things.
If you feel you are forever about to make a faux pas, psychologists have made a discovery that should bring some comfort. The “pratfall effect”, first popularised by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson, shows that displays of weakness and fallibility make us more likeable. So in some ways it may be a networking asset.
Tips on talking the talk
One of the hardest parts of networking is entering the room and knowing where to start. Here are some ideas to get you going.
- Head for the drinks table. Not to drown your sorrows but because this is where many conversations are naturally struck up.
- Scan the room and observe the body language of those present. If people are in a tight huddle then they don’t want to be disturbed. If you see two people facing outwards, it could be easy to join them.
- Read up on news and events prior to the event to ensure you have a few things to talk about.
- Offer an opening gambit of “I don’t know anyone here”. Sometimes, this creates a “me too” response, or elicits a few introductions.
- Make jokes. A few light-hearted greetings and shared jokes can help get you in the right frame of mind and make the event more productive. Your brain will release dopamine (a motivating chemical) and serotonin (the happy chemical). Others will also enjoy your company more.
A three-pronged approach to networking was devised called the ARE strategy, which stands for anchor, reveal and encourage. Find common ground with someone (anchor), reveal something about yourself and encourage others to talk. Everyone’s favourite subject is themselves.
Shyness is no barrier to success
Until my early 20s, I was terribly shy. This made me afraid of public speaking and mixer events. However, my career ambitions forced me to confront my anxieties until I became “desensitised”. Though introverts will always feel some trepidation at networking meetings, practice will help them perform better. You can’t change your personality, but you can change your behaviour and your reactions to a given situation. If you are very nervous about networking, the best thing to do is confront your fears and do more of it.
I find it helps to remind myself that adults at business meetings normally have great empathy for those who are less confident. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t make a connection and you never see these people again.
- Preparation can help overcome anxiety. Get a list of attendees, do some research on those you want to meet beforehand and read up on recent news and events.
- Think positively and relax. Remember the worst-case scenario of a networking event is not that bad.
- Make the aim of the event helping others and making connections. If someone helps us, we feel bound to repay the favour.
- Be prepared to admit that you don’t know anyone and be open to revealing shortcomings, especially if it implies a strength.
- Talk about yourself all night. No one wants to listen to the self-obsessed.
- Hand out business cards without good reason. Only give them to people you want to meet again.
- Forget to listen. Showing interest in others is key as it makes the speakers feel good and enables us to learn.
- Remain in a huddle with people you know. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone but you will not make new contacts.
- Forget to follow up. If you say you are going to call then you should. People respect those who are true to their word.
Effective networking doesn’t have to mean awkward small talk at boring business breakfasts. Why not learn more about how you can make networking work so much harder for you at the next RE:Women event?