A few thoughts on networking (making contacts – not building telecomms!)

Target audience

If you work in “communications” (PR to you) I wonder if you’ve ever tried to explain to friends and family what we do for a living? For me I’ve always thought it one of the best examples of how sometimes communicators aren’t so good at communicating.

When telling my late Mum about something or other I’d been up to she would often say “Oh well it’s just about who you know in your job isn’t it?” Somehow she thought my extensive ‘little black book’ of contacts was something not quite above the board.

My daughters never understood it at all when younger, other than knowing that “Dad talks a lot.”

Comms frequently is about who we know and who knows us.

But of course, that’s not all there is to it. It’s not just about who you know and who knows you, it’s about what they think of you, what you know about them and most importantly building relationships and then having the knowledge to use them.

Networks are webs of people, bound to one another through trust, mutual need, and comparable goals.

They are based on criteria such as professional credentials, skills, experience, position and access. Sometimes they are about or drawn from friendships outside or beyond business. Sometimes the product of doing business.

Networks provide information, support, advice, and assistance. They work because there is mutual benefit involved, and because members of networks tend to trust each other – to some degree or another.

Networking is important whatever your business, not just for Comms types obviously …

There are different types of networks.

Some face to face in the ‘real-world’ and some more virtual. Some are personal, some professional or business. Some networks seem to grow organically without a lot of thought or planning. They occur when we work with other people and just get to know, or get to know of, each other.

Other networks are more deliberate. They need to be grown and cultivated – building both types of network as business and personal assets.

In all cases they are strategic business and personal resources. And what’s more they are your resources. They are unique to you. Nobody else has networks exactly the same as yours. Your combination of networks, the relationships between the people in them, and their relationships with you are unique to you.

In a business that is about reputations, relationships and people as much as it is concerned with anything else – your USP is your unique set of networks.

This post is based on a training presentation I have given over the years and is about identifying, building, looking after and using networks.

These are the three main areas we’ll discuss today, but before we do that I want to ask you the question that you should ask before doing these – start by asking why. Then I’ll come back to a few practical ‘how to do it’ thoughts on networking…

  • Start with why
  •  Identify and build networks
  •  Exploit and create opportunities
  •  Look after your networks
  •  How to.

Although I launched into a definition of networking, that is not where we start when building them. The starting point should always be why?

Understanding why you need networks is crucial. Who they are and when, where and how we network can only be addressed when we know why we are doing it.

As in a game of chess, you need to think through to the end of the game to plan your first moves.

I’d start by writing down why you want to create or improve networks. Could be personal development, new business, extending knowledge, just improving contacts or all of the above.

Identify

Most people tend to think about networking as something we do for ourselves and our organisations outside them – in building external networks.

Before we do that I recommend addressing internal networks. Get those right and then as with all good communication programmes build from the inside out. I once worked for a divisional CEO whose first (and often only) priority was to build networks internally with people who could be the gate-keepers for him to achieve his personal and business objectives. His “internal comms” plan to me was a postcard with five names written on it.

He had very clearly articulated “why” and knew “who”. He had identified the network he wanted to have.

I recommend that you start by identifying the networks you have as well already as well as the ones you want to create.

Build

Think of your version of that internal hit list on a card. The people you know and work with now, and those who you’d like to get to know and get them to know you. If you think in pictures like me then create an organisation chart showing how they relate to you and each other. Add in how they might be connected – things like who could introduce you to whom.

Find out what the people you want to know are interested in, what they do and what they might need help with. Look for cross-functional opportunities where you can stretch beyond your obvious place on the chart.

Identify who can be sought out for advice, counsel, mentoring. A chart like this can help you to see the connections and how you can follow them.

You can follow exactly the same approach externally, and having built an internal network, you can look for the connections between people you know internally with those you might target externally.

Opportunity 1 – make them

You might be lucky and opportunities will present themselves for you to exploit. If they do grab them.

If they do not, then think about how you can create opportunities.

Having identified who you want to meet and why, find out where they go and when. Without turning yourself into a stalker identify those meetings, events and places to cross paths where you can be at the right time and in the right way.

In the digital age, this applies equally to virtual meeting places. Reading the right sites and blogs, joining in conversations, making your contributions – this can all help to open up conversations and get you noticed.

Opportunity 2 – digital

Networking on the ultimate network – the internet – throws up all kinds of opportunity, but also some risk.  Clearly being “out there” in the digital world can be a lot less discrete than the analogue world version, not least because most interesting stuff that you can see and access can equally be seen and shared by everyone else too. So this is not the digital equivalent of attending meetings and events, it’s more like being a speaker at them. So be careful, but definitely exploit the opportunity it affords.

The golden rule is to make sure you understand how different channels and platforms work. How they are accessed, what they are used for, and how your involvement with them might dovetail into your networking plans.

Personal, political, professional, business, entertainment, and public worlds can all collide in the digital world. Net etiquette is extremely important in making sure that you do not cause offense or simply demonstrate that you don’t understand the medium.

Linked In is of course the most obvious place to be, not just with a good profile and building connections, but by using it’s blogging platform Pulse to post your own contributions and comments, and through using your contacts to be introduced to other contacts. In the early days of Linked In this all worked very well and quite naively with most people on it simply treating it as their digital version of a Little Black Book. But – in recent years it has become much more commercialised and is blatantly used as a new business tool by sales people. We still need to be more subtle than that. I think it’s best use for us is to provide another route of access.

I include this reference to digital networking under the heading of “Opportunity” here because I think being out there, being part of conversations, being seen and known to be accessible is the best thing that platforms such as this can help us with.

They are also great research tools in helping us to find, look up ands understand contacts or would-be contacts. This includes their presence on non-business orientated social media – but as I say be careful to respect the silos in which online activity takes place and do not abuse friendships.

Opportunity 3 – who are you

My next thought on opportunity applies equally to digital and real world networking.

We all have a network in place in our personal and past lives whether we call it that or not. Graduates in particular have alumni networks behind them which can be of direct or indirect benefit. So the thought here is think about who you know already. Not those at work or through work, but others who you know personally through education, shared interests or shared experience.

Two people still on my “prospects” list for new business were friends I was at university with forty years ago.

Over the years our paths have criss-crossed and now both are in business positions in organisations of interest to us. So, my old uni network is still of value (or at least potentially is) even after all this time. Indeed one of them introduced me to another possible new business contact for us earlier this year. She is someone I do not have in my network of contacts and hadn’t even heard of, but a friend of a friend introduction at least got us in the door.

In the same spirit, when you move on through your career think about the people you have met along the way.

Make sure you keep tabs on your contacts, connections and friends.

Looking after your networks 1 – Managing data

My first thought on looking after your networks, is to look after your data.

I started with a graphic of a “Little Black Book”. In olden times we all had a little black book of contacts in our pocket and a Rolodex of index cards on our desks. We recorded everything we knew about our contacts with pen and paper.

Now of course we can do this digitally.  with CRM systems and the like. However, I would recommend still keeping your own records not least so you can record any information you do not want to share and so you don’t lose it.

I keep a simple spread sheet of my contacts, their old roles, new roles, experience, likes, dislikes, families, first met, last met – and next meet details.

Make sure whichever systems are used that they are living documents.

Looking after your networks 2 – keeping in touch

Networking involves giving and sharing in addition to seeking and receiving help, advice, counsel and information. Be sure you give and take. Be sure you keep in touch.

Periodically find an excuse to stop by, call, or even email or chat on social media – whatever is most relevant and appropriate.

The key is to be first – volunteer information, call before you are called, offer to do things you haven’t been asked to do, help your contacts to build their own networks through your introductions.

This is important with both internal and external networks. Basically, don’t let them go cold!

Face to face meetings are still best. There is nothing quite as effective as human contact. In fact in a digital age when so much communication is made and business done without face to face meetings – the one that is personal is all that much more special.

Thank you notes and other little extra thoughts are generally appreciated and every follow up communication to a meeting is an excuse to set up another meeting or to keep the conversation going.

Networks are personal. They are about relationships and empathy, about people feeling comfortable in your company, and about people feeling they have benefitted from the contact – so although maintaining the database is important, do not consider an entry on the screen updated as a contact made.

It’s an old saying that “people buy people” but a truism that should not be forgotten. Networking is about facilitating that “sale”.

Looking after your network – 3 Listen

The last thought here is a quick one – just listen. It’s important to soak up as much information as possible. Anything and everything could be valuable at some point in time when networking. It might not be obvious at the time – so keep your mind as well as your ears open.

Active listening is a real skill in networking.

In this last section I want to discuss some more practical “How to …” starting with making an entrance (introductions), speaking with body language, and some thoughts on “working a room.”

  • Making your entrance
  •  Speaking with body language
  •  Working a room
  •  Planting seeds
  •  Being known for something

Making an (entrance) introduction

 

Making an entrance and introducing ourselves properly is key to good networking.

The image here in some peoples’ heads is still of a business card being presented Japanese style. Unless you are networking with Japanese people I wouldn’t recommend such a formal approach. I use the image as a reminder of a good introduction.

The Japanese present cards in this way as a sign of respect and deference, but also to establish the identity and status of the person being met. In a UK setting we tend to exchange cards, if at all these days, at the end of a conversation, almost as an afterthought, an aide memoire for someone to take away.

That’s also a useful close to a meeting – but for today’s purposes I want us to think about how we introduce ourselves when we meet people, how we establish our credentials and how we make ourselves memorable.

Making the right impression is obviously important, but equally important is to get some of the real basics right – like giving and remembering names.

Remembering names

Of course the second meeting with someone can be the real test. At least with a first meeting nobody expects you to know their name. When you meet them again they really do.

When I was a political agent I used to have this challenge every day. Each constituency political party only had one agent, but had thousands of members. So when I went into a room full of people at a party meeting or event most people knew who I was. And they expected me to know who they were.  Giving your card to someone who thinks you’re already friends is a definite step backwards in networking!

I used a name – association system (in my head), just linking names and faces in my mind to places and events. So trying to commit to memory an association for a name that was easier to recall than trying to work my way through the Rolodex in my head of names with no faces.

There are lots of different ways to do this and lots of books to advise. My system was something like this …

Some people prefer mnemonics but personally I have as much trouble trying to recall what the mnemonic refers to – so that just doubles the problem. Something which I always do is write myself notes – so a little black book or a pocket full of cards with notes written on them at the end of every event or meeting!

My advice is to try a few alternatives and find what works best for you.

The one thing which works for most people is repetition of name and good eye contact. So when hearing a name for the first time, maintain eye contact (shake hands if appropriate) and say the persons name why fixing them eye to eye.

There is an added bonus to this. People generally like hearing other people say their name, so you’ve hopefully scored your first point.

Overall, the important thing to remember is not to make it obvious that you are going through some kind of system in your head, or even worse – saying it out loud!

Speaking with body language – a few notes on smiles, hands, eyes, and breathing…

Shaking hands and making eye contact are usually the openers to any interpretation of body language.

Dry and clean hands, firm but not crushing handshakes (without missing or half missing) are the order of the day in most circumstances. Of course in some countries, corporate cultures and circumstances it’s all about the kissing – but that requires a whole training course on its own to navigate cultural rules – so today I’ll just stick to handshakes.

It is important to smile and make eye contact as you shake hands. Try to avoid grinning like a Cheshire cat and looking too scary, but a polite smile is important – particularly in a first meeting. It is your first calling card – a sign that “It’s OK you can talk to me, I’m friendly” !

The thing to avoid is the “Is there somebody here more interesting” move.

Politicians can be particularly bad at this, maybe because they just meet so many people, but there is no excuse. This is when someone shakes your hand in greeting and as hands are making contact the other persons eyes are already looking for the next person to meet. This fails on all counts, not least because it shouts loud and clear that you are not important to the other person.

It’s equally important not to let eyes stray in this way when somebody is talking to you. However difficult it may be when stuck with the wrong person or a real bore, the simple rule is “one person at a time” and give that person your full, if brief, attention. It’s also easier to break off from a conversation when doing this in reverse – eye contact, shake hands, smile.

The old salesman thing here really is important. It’s all about sincerity. If you can fake that you’ve made it! But seriously – being fake and looking fake comes over as fake. So if you don’t feel it, probably not the best time to do it.

Last thought here is on breathing. Remember to do it. That might sound slightly strange, but it’s often forgotten.

When you are networking at an event and meeting lots of people, you will be doing a lot of talking. You will also be putting effort into smiling at right times and working on that eye contact… so the last thought is – as you go into a room take a deep breath, fill your lungs.

Working a room – a few thoughts on events and functions – a bit of a do!

  1. Showtime!

OK so it’s business social not a show, but you are there to put on a show, to tell a story, to give a performance. So think about the character you are playing and how you want to be perceived by your audience. What will their review of you be? It’s worth a thought before you jump in.

  1. Make an entrance

Still with the theatrical theme, think about first impressions. So before you go on to “the stage” check your appearance (find a mirror), take a deep breath or two, and run through your lines in your head. When you enter a room try to look as though you’re supposed to be there. Does that sound silly? Possibly – but think about how others see you for the first time. If you don’t want to give the wrong impression try not to look as though you’re not sure if you were on the invitation list. Feel and look confident and positive. Not over the top – you don’t need to jump into the room and shout “Ta Dah!”, but it’s no bad thing if you look as though you are approachable and interesting.

  1. Don’t juggle

Much networking takes place at quasi social business events where the ingredients are usually a large room, indifferent wine and inedible nibbles. They also involve name badges (which can be useful) and the ability to juggle.

Juggling is involved balancing glass, plate, information folder from the fascinating event and a hand needed to be free to make that handshake and hand over the business card.

If you are an idiot it will also involve a mobile phone. Don’t. Just don’t (ever) use a mobile phone in front of people at an event or function. It simply communicates that you have a more important conversation to attend to – so if you have – go to attend to it (somewhere else)!

But even without the phone, quite a bit of juggling – to be avoided rather than managed. So – think about the minimum number of things you can carry or need to hold. It’s a challenge but one worth thinking through so you have less to worry about and hands free.

  1. Opening Lines

You don’t want to sound as though you are reading from a script or being formulaic, but it helps to have an opening line in your head, and rehearsed out loud to hear how it sounds.  The “One Degree” introduction is always the best. Find a mutual acquaintance who can introduce you to the third person. That starts you off with an endorsement and without the need for you to blow your own trumpet.

  1. Have something to say – Be well read

In addition to the business things you want to get into conversations at some point, you need to be up on issues of the day – from serious to light hearted – conversation topics which you can introduce or respond to. The last thing you want is to have nothing to say, or not be able to get a conversation going with someone else who has nothing to say. You don’t need to be the world’s expert – in fact better if you aren’t – but just enough awareness to have an opinion and get the chat going.

  1. Don’t over do it

Despite a list of at least 5 dos and don’ts so far, try to keep it natural, casual, easy, and relaxed. Looking as though you have a checklist in your head is a massive turn off. Sometimes saying less is best. Just choose the moment and try to pace a conversation.

  1. How to break in

The most likely thing at these functions is that everyone is in a similar boat and just looking for someone to talk to but not get stuck with. It may be that some people know each other already of course and so groups form. Arriving as the outsider that can be difficult. The simplest thing is to stand with a group and introduce yourself to one person who is not already talking. You need to slide in rather than push in to the group and be welcomed by it not resented. So don’t dive in and tell them how interesting you are. Take it in stages, person by person and let them come to you because you are an interesting person.

  1. It’s work

If your objective in attending an event is to consume as much free booze as possible, eat the food and have a laugh then fine, but that is having a party and not networking. If your objective is to network then treat it as a business assignment. Drink only a little or not at all, and eat before or afterwards. You are on a mission, so don’t mix work and pleasure. I know a lot of big business entertainers and those who are “never knowingly under-lunched” might dispute this and advise that you can have fun too, but that’s like an ad libbing comedian who says they don’t rehearse. The best ad-libbers are always the most rehearsed performers.

  1. Plan ahead

Not always possible or relevant but if possible try to find out who is likely to be there and who you want to meet. Have a plan with clear targets.

  1. Plant seeds

Business social events are not the time to make speeches and tell everyone everything you know. It is a time to plant a few seeds – ideas and thoughts left with people that you can follow up later. You don’t want your first meeting to be your last. The idea is to use first meetings to pave the way to a long lasting relationship. So don’t rush it.

Another conference

On the theme of planting seeds, here is another thought on attending exhibitions, trade shows and conferences. Ideally you should be there as exhibitor or speaker, but if not they may still be worth attending to plant some more seeds. Touring exhibition stands and chatting to a few people here and there can communicate that you are around, and maybe that you are worth a follow up conversation. These are low pressure opportunities where you can do as much if not more listening than talking.

 

Being known for something

The final thought in this section is on being famous for something, or at least if not exactly famous, then known. Part of your preparation for any networking should include deciding what that thing is.

It could be a position on an issue of the moment, authorship of a paper or blog, speaker on a subject, or known for expertise or experience in a subject of interest and topicality.

This is really a thought about “Personal brand” – so what’s yours?

Research, prep and plan

The last thought here concerns ‘advance work.’

Good research, preparation and planning make networking effective.

You cannot be over-prepared. Good preparation breeds personal confidence and makes best use of time and effort.

Well stocked CRM (and other databases) are essential to this research – to identify targets, prepare messages, and plan the seeds to plant and ways to follow up. This is a complete end to end process, it begins and ends with good data.

Part of the research needed is to identify the right opportunities, to choose the relevant events and functions and the people there to meet. The challenge to be aware of and invited to, the right places is one which lessens with the more networking done. The more events you attend the more you will be invited to.

The more contributions to debates and conversations made, the more sought and the more people met, the more there are to meet.

Networks are like people because they are simply made up of people – the thing with networks is the more you do, the more attention you give to them, and the more you feed them with information – the faster and better they grow.

Do’s

  • Introduce yourself/get names!
  • Listen to them and look at them
  • Have something to say
  • Talk more them than you
  • Leave with opportunity to follow up

Don’ts

  • Formulaic/Template contacts
  • Silence/No communication
  • No show – be polite and not follow up
  • Offer to do things and fail to deliver
  • Ask for something every time
  • and never look at your phone.

 

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