As a savvy entrepreneur, you are aware of the importance of a solid contact network. And yet maybe, like many people, you hate networking activities. Introverted personalities, in particular, often feel uncomfortable in these events, with their rapid succession of handshakes and business cards bombarding.
While extroverted people gain energy in their social interactions and come out of a business cocktail feeling happy and stimulated, introverted individuals conversely lose energy and feel exhausted when they get home.
Onirade offers a little guide for the 8 steps to go through, in this order, to fully benefit from networking:
1. Selecting the right event. Choose the networking opportunities that correspond to your business’ needs depending on your line of business, as well as to your personal preferences. Some events are rather general, while others target a definite audience and can thus allow you to meet the key-players of a specific industry. This can be a good occasion to meet one person in particular, if you know in advance that they’ll be there as the guest of honour or speaker. You can also select events in line with your personal strengths or preferences, because there is more to life than alcoholic business cocktails! If you are a morning person, the Chambers of Commerce often hold business breakfasts, and the various sections of the BNI organisation also meet on mornings, before office hours. There are also rotating diners (where attendees change tables for each course), conferences, congresses or conventions, formation workshops, etc.
2. Setting goals. Before you attend the networking activity, you should first know why you are going, and what you hope to get from it! Are you looking for a collaborator for your startup? Do you want to make your new product known through word of mouth? Do you need investors, clients, a mentor? If you do not know why you are networking, you will not be efficient and you risk losing your time. Especially if you are introverted, you can also motivate yourself to meet more people by deciding in advance that you hope to talk to, for instance, 5 to 8 persons. Likewise, you don’t have to spend the whole evening at a business cocktail; you can very well decide to go for 30 minutes or 1 hour only, so you don’t tire yourself mentally or put too much pressure on yourself!
3. Preparing your “elevator pitch”. Once you will have engaged in conversation with new acquaintances, you will inevitably be facing questions about what you do in life, what kind of business you have launched, what you are looking for, etc. This is why you should prepare in advance a very brief pitch that conveys in one shot and in a structured manner the information that you wish to communicate: what your business is, what it does (in other words, which problem it solves), what sets it apart from competitors, and what you are looking for in the networking event you are at. Rehearse this elevator pitch at home or in front of friends, because it is in your best interest to master it, so as to give a professional, confident and thought-through image of your startup.
4. Knowing how to approach people. Networking events can be very intimidating, especially the first few times! Don’t stress out: you will not be the only one to be a little shy, and keep in mind that the other attendees are there for the same reason as you, so they want to meet you! A good tip to get in touch with strangers is to spot a group or three or more individuals and to mingle with them. You will not feel like you are imposing as much as you would if you intruded on a conversation between two people. If you are not greeted as soon as you arrive, listen to the person talking to the group and wait for them to be done talking before saying “Good evening! Allow me to introduce myself, I’m X!” while offering a handshake to the people in front of you. You will quickly be included in the conversation.
If you notice that someone is alone, you will be kind to go talk to them, or to invite them to join your group. Approaching strangers always comes with some uneasiness, and resonates inside us all with the universal fear of rejection: you will be appreciated if you take the lead in breaking the ice with people who might feel isolated. You just have to say on a pleasant tone “Good evening, Madam! I saw you were alone in a corner, so I figured I’d come talk to you! My name is X.”
5. Mastering the art of conversation. Remember that the other attendees are there to meet people, too, and that they are probably just as intimidated as you are about it. The best way to build rapport with them is to ask questions about themselves and their business. Ask them why they are there, what they are looking for. And, above all, listen! Making a good impression has a lot more to do with listening than with talking: show your interest, ask more information, and offer your undivided attention.
Always keep a few useful questions at the back of your mind to revive the discussion: “How did you hear about this event?”, “What are the next steps in your project?”, “What is your objective for the upcoming year?”, etc. A great question to ask towards the end of a conversation is: “What do you need? What can I do to help you?” You will be appreciated if you offer some assistance that way, because networking is first and foremost about mutual aid.
6. Making connections. Whenever you are networking, you should never be alone: all your friends, your family and your relations should be with you at the back of your mind. It bears repeating: networking is synonym with mutual support! Is the entrepreneur you’re talking to struggling to reach they target audience? Tell them about your friend who is a social media specialist, and offer to put them in contact. Your interlocutor just purchased a condo, but finds it a tad dull? Introduce them to the interior designer you have spoken with earlier at the event.
Likewise, do not neglect the impact of an introduction made by a third party. If you would like to meet someone of importance, the guest of honour or speaker for instance, you will have more credibility if you ask the event organiser or a common friend to make the introductions.
7. Mastering the use of business cards. Do not assault people with your business cards: you would look like a desperate salesperson. Follow this little rule: hand out your business card only if you are asked for it. In fact, when the conversation draws to an end, take the initiative to ask for one from your interlocutor: “Your project seems really interesting! I would like to keep in touch with you so we can discuss it more! Do you have a business card?” Generally, you’ll be asked for yours in return.
Do not hesitate to jot down a few remarks on the business card given to you. For example, if the person was looking for a programmer for their business, add a note to remind you to put them in touch with your friend who works in that field.
8. Following up. All the above steps will be perfectly useless if you forget to ensure a proper follow-up after the meeting. If you do not make contact with the individuals you have just met, you will have wasted your time and theirs with this pointless networking. You should promptly write an email to the people you have met or add them on LinkedIn, ideally within 24h. Take the time to write a kind, personalised and professional message, in which you mention the person’s project and express your desire to keep in touch. If you promised to put the person in contact with one of your relations, or to send them a link towards a website of interest to them, do it without delay! Unless the individual has a professional page or you instantly became best friends, it is not advisable to add people on Facebook: often, those profiles are used for much more personal functions, and should someone feel obligated to accept your request, or if you are the kind of person who get offended by a refusal, this could lead to an awkward situation.