Some of us shudder at the mere thought of spending an evening doing it.
To others it’s just a chore.
To a lucky few, it’s a way of life.
Effective networking is at the core of every successful business deal, but here’s the secret. It’s about far more than business.
Successful networking, says Emmy award-winning former CNN correspondent and anchor Gina London, is about making genuine human connections.
She should know.
With more than a decade of television, radio and print experience under her belt, along with a stint as senior vice-president and strategist for one of the largest government affairs firms in the US, this globe-trotting communications expert defines good networking as “the strategy that you put into being who you are”.
In other words, you get out there and make a real effort, not to simply sell people something, but to be genuinely friendly and win them over.
That takes work, despite what we like to think.
Most people don’t even think about preparing for a networking event, says London. For them, all the effort goes into just showing up — after which they expect to wing it.
Networking, however, she emphasises, is actually about applying carefully considered new strategies to the making of friends and contacts.
“To me, networking is not just who you know. It’s also about what you know,” says London,
We’re still only half-way through January, but already she’s addressed the Pendulum Summit in Dublin, led a sold-out networking workshop for the Cork Chamber of Commerce and members of the public, and flown to Singapore to train 20 top managers at SAP, the world’s largest software multinational, in the skills of communication.
London has expertise in nearly every facet of communications, from social media, branding, and crisis communications, to working with the media and presentation skills, so, when she says it’s worth taking the trouble to be interested in, and interesting to other people in social or business interactions, listen up.
Ask genuinely interested questions, but also be aware of what you can add to a discussion, she emphasises.
Add value to these conversations by being well-read and well-rounded, so that you have the relevant information and general knowledge to engage in an enjoyable, informed conversation.
Don’t ask boring networking questions and don’t engage in ‘elevator speak’, she advises.
“You may have read an article or book which is relevant to their interest and you can draw on this to reinforce your connection with them – be well-read and well-rounded,” she advises.
When you’re in conversation with someone else, be ready to say how you can help them, but remember, she warns, before people buy your product or service they have to buy you.
President of Network Ireland Deirdre Waldron, a member of the Cork Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Fuzion PR, puts it like this: “It’s very much about the human element. Try not to go into it with your sales hat on. If you’re too focused on selling, it can be a turn-off.
“We all do business with people we like and, if you have an opportunity to have that one-to-one conversation that you can get through networking, it can be very valuable.
“A person will be more inclined to deal with you if they have met you previously and, if you are both members of the same organisation, so it’s important to be out there and make that connection with people.”
Here’s how she approaches networking: “When I meet someone, I let them speak first and tell me about their business. I listen before mentioning my own business.”
Being a good listener can also highlight ways your skill-set may be of use to another person, she says.
“You can demonstrate your skills without waving your sales hat in their face”.
Also, follow up on that casual promise to get back to them with that book title, that contact number for a good GP or pilates class, says London.
“About 95% of people who meet one another in business, networking, social events, conferences, don’t follow up,” says London.
Yet, if you bother to follow up with something that is of interest to another conference delegate, you’re engaging in professional communications that have real personal value.
“It’s about being real and being committed to other people. If you’re like that, then other people will be real and committed back.”
However, that involves effort, says London. There’s no quick fix to becoming an effective networker.
“This is a life-time re-positioning about how you approach your life and your work – and that takes work.”
Art of networking
Once you’ve committed to the correct mindset here are some other tips to consider:
“You should be on Linked-in and Twitter in a personable, engaging relevant and active way.
“I have a substantial business contract in Nigeria because of a professional relationship that began on Twitter three-and-a-half-years ago.”
Once a connection is made, be “ready and prepared to step up,” says London. Real professional contact is real work, she warns.
Register early for networking events, she advises. Next use the registration tool to research the online community of speakers and audience in advance of the event.
This is a great way to find out who you want to meet and who you can meet on line prior to the event.
“Never attend a networking event cold if there’s an online communication channel available beforehand,” London says.
“If you don’t know whether there is one, ask the host or organiser. Then set a goal to find at least one interesting person. Next hook up with them by finding a piece of common ground and sending a message.”
“Always try to get a list of people attending a conference in advance. You can contact them before hand and meet up at the conference, or approach them when they arrive.”
“Some of the most valuable networking you do is at the beginning. If you arrive late the speeches are going on and people are rushing away afterwards,” Waldron says.
“The Cork Chamber of Commerce runs great breakfast meetings starting at 7.30am. I try to be there by 7.15am to catch up with people as they come in — you’re catching the early birds.”
Most of all, be positive and realise networking really is something you simply have to do for yourself, says Waldron.