For many entrepreneurs, networking is an uncomfortable but necessary evil. To me, networking is some of the best fun I have as an entrepreneur. I have a natural knack for people and conversation, and I want to pass what I’ve learned in my seven years of networking as an entrepreneur to you so you can take advantage of the connections that are out there without feeling quite so uncomfortable.
But first, I should explain why you ought to network, especially if you have an online / location-independent business. Have you ever heard the phrase it’s all who you know? Whomever first said it was a wise person, and it is so true. Most of my best experiences in business were through people I knew. Our largest (ongoing) client at my web development company was referred to us through my network. I was in the 2011 Rising Women Leaders program because someone I knew suggested I apply. And I have received several awards because others nominated me. Even a good deal of my speaking and public exposure has been because I knew someone who knew someone.
Network can mean clients, publicity, resources, and more.
So let’s get started on developing your networking skills in order to Network Like A Ninja.
Plan For Your Energy
For most of us, networking conjures the image of a bar or restaurant where a large group of entrepreneurs have gathered to meet each other, drink, trade business cards, and talk about themselves. Sounds like fun, right?
This is your chance to choose how you want the event to go for you. Yes, meeting strangers can be awkward and overwhelming. For me, these types of events are ones I only have an hour for before I get sensory and energy overloaded and need to go home to self care. If you’re anywhere as busy as I am, you’ll probably need to watch your energy levels, too.
Plan for an hour, and then stick to it. This will keep you from being overwhelmed and wanting to avoid such events in the future. If you really hate these types of events, add a ‘treat’ for yourself afterward. Go home to a bubble bath, or get ice cream on the way home. Reward yourself for going to the event.
Ok, so you’ve arrived at a networking event with a bunch of strangers. You’re looking around the room and aren’t sure where to start. Here are a few secrets to getting started.
First, if it’s at a bar and you drink, go straight to the bar. Personally, I’ve more or less ceased drinking, but I still go to the bar. I stand there and request a glass of water so I have something in my hand. This accomplishes three things. One, I no longer have the awkward ‘where do I put my hands’ issue. Two, I avoid anyone asking me why I’m not drinking (most of the time folks don’t notice it’s a clear liquid in a beer glass). Three, I now am at the bar where everyone else who just came in is, so we all have the same stating point.
You’re all waiting at the bar for your drinks, which gives you a common topic of conversation. No guesswork needed! Turn to the person next to you (whomever looks friendliest) and ask them what they ordered. You don’t even have to introduce yourself, yet! Just ask about their drink. Ask them why they prefer that beer / beverage. Hopefully they have something interesting to say about it and ask you about yours in return. If they don’t, just let it go. Don’t force conversation.
Not sure what else to ask next? Try asking how they heard about the event. This will tell you about their habits, if they’re tech literate, who they know, and maybe more, giving you further conversation points. If you’re getting on well, go ahead and toss in a self-intro, such as, “By the way, I’m Veronica, it’s nice to meet you,” and offer your hand. Definitely do this as you walk away. It can be a good way to escape, actually, because it can be treated as an ‘I’m leaving now so I thought I’d tell yo my name’ line. Or it can lead to further conversation if you’d like.
Look For A Smile
Ok, that takes care of the bar. You can go back to the bar (or food line) at any time if you are feeling awkward or need to start over.
As you enter the room, look for the friendliest face, or look for a smile. Sometimes, I look for someone who is lonely, but you have to be willing to carry the conversation if you do this. People who stand alone probably feel really awkward, too, and don’t know how to keep a conversation going with a stranger. If you don’t feel up to this task, then go after the smiling person instead. This is a person who is probably an extrovert and, if you let them, they’ll talk your ear off, taking the pressure off you.
You can use the talking points I suggested above. It can feel like dating, and in a way, it is. You’re getting to know someone, but instead of looking for life compatibility, you’re looking for business compatibility. Ask how they heard about the event, why they chose to attend, if it’s their first time, what they’re drinking, and about their business. If the conversation lulls, ask them who else they know that is there, and ask for an introduction. This way you move through the room and meet more than one person, but without the awkward stranger danger.
Start With Your Why
If you don’t know your “why”, I suggest downloading my Business Pathfinder workbook from the Resource Library. I’m talking about your Why as in the book by Simon Sinek, which is a book I recommend everyone read if they are starting a business.
Your “what” is your title. That’s what everyone expects you to introduce yourself with. For me, this would be, “Hi, I’m Veronica. I’m an Entrepreneur Coach.” Merp! Boring! No one cares (which is not true but it’s sort of true in a room full of people and sensory overload and beer and free food). Instead, I lead with this: “Hi, I’m Veronica. I coach LTBTQ women to grow a business they love.” Way more interesting, right?
The reason this is more interesting than a title is because it begs the question. I’ve been asked all kinds of follow up questions, some of them being: What does that mean? So you’re a business coach? (No, I’m an Entrepreneur Coach… which begs more questions 😉 ). Do you work with startups? Are you local? Why is LGBTQ so different that you specialize in it? All of a sudden, the people I just met want to know more about my business and they will remember it later.
The other reaction I get from time to time in my current location, a conservative city, is a confused look about LGBTQ having been mentioned as a niche, and then it gets ignored. That is excellent, because I then know that this is a person who won’t be a strong part of my network, and I don’t directly ask for their card (though I offer mine if asked — because you never know who they know).
Write On The Business Cards You Receive
Business cards are absolutely essential. It’s one of the first things I ask my clients who have a business they struggle to grow — do you carry business cards? Even when you’re not at a networking event, you should have at least five business cards on you at all times. Put them in your wallet with your cash, or in a pocket in your purse, or in the back pocket of your jeans. I keep them in my wallet and my purses — I trade purses a lot, so my wallet is my backup.
Anyway, when you’re at a networking event, you’ll hand out and receive a lot of cards. You should definitely bring a stack of cards to the event and hand them out like they’re candy (but don’t be pushy).
What I find is that when I’m gathering business cards from other entrepreneurs / business people at an event, I am quickly overwhelmed by all the faces and conversations. By the time I get home, I have forgotten who said what and why I cared. I don’t mean to be crass, but this is how the mind works. It’s information overload.
Bring a pen with you and write on the back of every single card you receive. If you attend several networking events in one week (or if you don’t tend to sort the business cards you received right away), you’ll absolutely want to write the name of the event and perhaps the date on the card. But also write what you talked about in a word or two.
This will help you jog your memory and make you look like you were really listening (which you probably were — but, again, information overload). When you get home / have time, use the business cards to connect with the people you met in a more official manner. My number one go to is LinkedIn. Some people do business on Facebook or Instagram, and that’s fine if that works for you, but my professional network is on LinkedIn. I look up the person there and, when I click “connect”, I include a thoughtful but short message about meeting them at the event and include a sentence regarding our conversation. This will help them remember you, too, which is critical for future interaction.
Learn to leverage these connections for your business, plus find out how I networked my way into meetings in European cities where I previously knew NO ONE, in the second part of this two-part blog series, so stay tuned!
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