When I first set up my business, the idea of networking made my heart sink. I’m an avowed introvert and the idea of walking into a room full of strangers and having to conjure up a conversation from thin air terrified and repelled me in equal measure. I could never have imagined that in less than a year, I’d get to the stage where I really enjoy it and I aim to get to at least one event a week. So what can you do to go from networking novice to feeling confident about walking into the room?
Choose the right events
Every networking group will have its own style, and finding one that matches your personality can go a long way to making you feel more comfortable. Some will have a lot of structure and feel quite corporate, others will be more relaxed. Researching online before you sign up can help; most events will include a description in their marketing information that help you suss out whether to expect something formal or informal and whether it is just networking or there will be a speaker. If in doubt, message the organiser and simply ask the question about how it operates before you decide whether to give it a go.
If you’re hoping that networking will help you build relationships with potential clients, you also need to consider where those potential clients are likely to go. If your main aim is to sell business services to corporate clients then there is not much point going to events geared towards small business owners.
Having said that, you might decide that for you, networking is not all about finding clients. It could be that you want to learn and that a mini workshop or inspirational speaker is the main draw. It might be that you want to get away from working on your own in the house and just meet with other business owners who will understand that it can be lonely working for yourself. One of my favourite groups has not (yet) got me any clients, but I love the sense of support and camaraderie I get from it.
Don’t try to sell
For many people the ultimate aim of investing time and money in networking is to make sales. That’s fine, but it’s a long game. If you’re putting pressure on yourself to find clients then it creates a temptation to focus too much on shoehorning your product or service into conversations from the off. That will make people feel uncomfortable, and if you seem desperate then your credibility can take a hit too.
At one recent event I went to, a friend made a throwaway comment about her health and someone selling supplements made a beeline for her to tell her about them. It just made for an awkward conversation and a swift getaway, whereas a genuine conversation about health could well have led to sharing the information naturally further down the line.
Think of it as being about investing your time to get yourself known; you are making new connections, strengthening existing ones and spreading the message about what you do. The visibility you create can get you further than you might think; I know of someone who signed up a big corporate client after their details were passed on from a conversation at networking. So don’t rush conversations or consider them a waste of time just because the person you’re speaking to isn’t your ideal customer!
Put yourself in other people’s shoes
When you feel nervous and unsure, it’s natural that you focus on that feeling. You worry about being stood on your own, or feeling awkward about going from one conversation to another. One way to combat that feeling is to shift your attention outside of yourself and consider what you can to do make sure other people enjoy the event.
Look for people stood on their own rather than those already in conversations. Ask them about themselves and what’s brought them along and you will often find conversation starts to flow naturally. You’re not on stage; you don’t need to dazzle and entertain people. In fact you will be much more memorable if you focus your attention on being interested in other people rather than trying to find interesting things to tell them!
And if all else fails, head for the coffee. People who are not yet in conversation will often be doing the same and it feels more purposeful than standing in the middle of the room looking around.
Stop stressing about your elevator pitch!
One of the most common fears when people are new to networking is the dreaded ‘elevator pitch’. The section of the meeting where people are in the spotlight for 30 seconds (or a minute) each and have the chance to tell everyone what they do. I get that this is daunting, but it really doesn’t need to be a source of stress. I’ve never asked anyone the question ‘what do you do’ and had them totally stumped and unable to answer!
The worst thing that can happen is that you’re not clear or that other people don’t show an interest in what you do. In which case, you’re no worse off than you were when you first came into the room.
One tip I was given which has served me well is to consider what statement or statements potential customers naturally show interest in when you are in conversation; the ones that prompt a nod of agreement, a laugh or a question. These are the things that make you memorable and hence are more likely to end up bringing business your way. Build one of these statements into your explanation of what you do rather than go with a functional description. So rather than ‘I make individual jewellery commissions using silver and semi precious stones’, try ‘I’m the one people come to when they need the perfect present idea; I create and make personalised jewellery’.
The main thing with your elevator pitch, as with networking in general, is that with practice it will come more naturally. You might not love it to start with, but commit to learning how you can do it better and you’ll soon find your groove.