Monday, 1 November 2010

Confident Networking

Some people seem to do it effortlessly, others stand on the edge of the room looking anxious and scurry away after 15 minutes.  Most of us are somewhere in between, but what's the secret to being a confident networker? 

1.  Decide on your goal
This means being clear about what you want to gain from networking.  Who do you want to talk to, and what you want from the interaction?
  • Do you want to simply make a particular person aware that you exist?
  • Let them know about your expertise in a specific subject area?
  • Tell them that you are looking to develop your career and are interested in finding out more about their organisation? 
2.  Believe in yourself
Making a positive impression requires a modicum of self-belief.  If you are networking to further your career prospects, you need to be clear that you have something to offer an employer.  Having a clear idea of your own value will help you feel OK about promoting yourself to others - you are networking for mutual gain.

3.  Recognise your personality type
If you are naturally introverted, you might find it helpful to make a commitment to yourself in terms of how long you'll stay at an event, and how many people you will talk to.  If you are more of an extravert, you might find yourself happily chatting to lots of people - your challenge is to keep your networking focused on achieving your goal. 

Events can be more fun, and networking less daunting, if you go with a friend.  However, you may need to agree in advance that you won't spend the whole time talking to each other - you still need to make the effort to mingle.
4.  Decide what you want to say about yourself
It really helps if you can sum up your 'message' in a couple of sentences.  For example, "I have worked in management accounting for six years.  I've learned a lot about cost reduction programmes and I'm aiming to apply what I've learned in a new environment".  Alternatively, there might be a particular question that you want to ask, eg, "I wondered if I might spend an afternoon shadowing someone in your department?"

5.  But don't rush it! 
There is a danger when we are goal-focused, and anxious, that we blurt out our question or message too early in the conversation, so that it feels forced.  This can create an awkward atmosphere, so have a few topics of small-talk prepared.

6.  Pay attention to creating rapport
This is a skill that is important in many contexts (the golden rule of influencing is 'Establish Rapport Before You Try To Persuade').  Rapport means: 
  • being interested in the other person, and genuinely listening to what they are saying.  Remember their name, but avoid the cringe-inducing trick of repeating it in every other sentence.
  • noticing their overall level of animation, and matching it.  If they are enthusiastic, allow yourself to share their enthusiasm.  Ask yourself if you are a 'low reactor' - someone who tends to be less responsive in their interactions with others.  Without meaning to, low reactors can often present a rather stony impression to people who don't know them well. 
  • being sensitive to the other person's state - don't, for example, ask them a question if they have a mouthful of food, or insist on carrying on the conversation if they are clearly eager to go and talk to someone else.
By the way, it's good to shake hands - it establishes human contact, and shows confidence.   

7. Know when to move on
If you are new to networking, and a bit nervous, there is a danger that you will seize upon the first person who talks to you at an event, and cling to them like a drowning person to a lifebuoy. When the conversation seems to be losing momentum, there are several ways to take your leave. You can wait for someone else to join the interaction, then after a few moments murmur "excuse me", and move on. Alternatively, you can say "I've enjoyed talking to you", then go to collect a drink, nip to the loo or pop outside to make a phone call.

8. Offer your business card
Sometimes a natural opportunity to give the other person your card arises during the conversation.  If not, you can always say "I've enjoyed talking to you.  Would you mind if I gave you my card?" as you take your leave.

9. Keep in touch
If you have made contact with someone that you want to keep in touch with, send them a short follow-up email within the next day or so.  This can simply be to say that you enjoyed meeting them, or it could include a reference to a website or article that they will find interesting.  Look for ways to give to people - top class networkers are generous.
10. Remember, 'Practice Makes Polished'
Like any other skill, networking can take time to develop.  Develop your ability, and confidence, in small steps by attending events simply to practise your approach.  It's a bit like going for a job interview: you don't want your first attempt to be in a situation where you are really keen to make a good impression.

Coming Soon ......
- How to Refresh a Tired CV 
- Facing Your Boss Across The Interview Table: how to apply successfully for your own job.