Done well, networking can be more than just an opportunity to meet new people – it can open you and your organisation to a world of opportunity.
For some people, the word ‘networking’ spikes cortisol levels in similar ways to mentions of heights, sharks and snakes.
It can conjure memories of standing uncomfortably in the corner of a loud room, clutching your champagne flute; awkwardly passing business cards around in a circle of people whose names you can’t remember; or trying to find the opportune moment to break into an existing conversation to introduce yourself.
But Dr Anna Blackman FCPHR, Co-Founder and Director of Talent Insight Solutions, doesn’t think networking should be something to fear. Instead, she encourages people to consider the wealth of opportunity that can arise when networking is done right.
“Networking has to be a key skill in your toolkit,” says Blackman.
It can not only expand your professional network, but also offer you rich and important insights into your business context and get your organisation’s brand in front of like-minded people.
Before we dive into some of the other benefits, Blackman shares advice to help you hone your networking skills so you can walk into your next networking event with confidence.
AHRI members have access to a range of local networking opportunities, including some upcoming end-of-year celebrations. Check out this calendar for an event in your area.
How to make networking feel more natural
Networking usually requires you to step outside of your comfort zone, says Blackman.
“We all know that feeling of being in an unconventional space – we don’t necessarily feel confident and we start over-analysing everything we do and say, rather than actively listening to what others have to say,” she says.
“People aren’t going to judge you for what you say. It’s more about what you’re going to learn from those people. So we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves in terms of how we think we’re going to be perceived. We’re all there for the same reason – to meet other people.”
Another thing to keep in mind, which can sometimes ease nerves, is that you don’t necessarily have to ask technical questions; you can keep it general. In fact, that often puts the other person at ease, as they don’t feel pressure to sell themselves or their business in every response.
Try asking questions such as:
What’s a challenge your business is facing at the moment?
What have you been reading or listening to that you’re finding interesting?
What do you love about your job?
How is your organisation responding to the hybrid work challenges that have emerged?
Whatever you choose to ask about, Blackman suggests focusing on open-ended questions.
“That way you’re not getting a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response – you’re allowing the conversation to open up.
“Another thing I suggest is taking the time to read the room and understand groups and how they’re standing; pay attention to the non-verbal communication. If people are in a closed group, that might be a group that’s more awkward to join. Whereas, if people are standing with each other, but there’s space for you to move in, that’s where you can walk up and introduce yourself.”
Blackman also notes that networking can be more challenging for introverts, as socialising with a group of new people can be emotionally draining.
“If you’re more introverted, be aware of what you’re doing beforehand so you don’t drain your energy reserves [ahead of the event]. Or, think about what you’ll do afterwards to gain your energy back.”
“We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves in terms of how we think we’re going to be perceived. We’re all there for the same reason – to meet other people.” – Dr Anna Blackman FCPHR, Co-Founder and Director of Talent Insight Solutions.
Now you’re armed with some tips for becoming a stronger networker, let’s dive into some of the things you and your business stand to gain from having a wide and diverse network.
1. Gain customer insights
A lot of local business networks will allow people to deliver a presentation as part of a networking event, says Blackman.
“There’s usually a presenter who is a member of that network. They might present about their business or a new product that’s launching, or something else. So they’re able to tap into a key customer base.”
While this might not be an explicit sales opportunity, you can mine the audience for rich insights, says Blackman, such as by asking:
What else would you like to see?
What doesn’t make sense to you?
How would you approach this challenge?
Which partners are you looking to for support?
How would you get executive buy-in for something like this?
Could you see your business using something like this?
What’s a pain point for you?
If you’re not in a service or product offering business, you can still follow a similar approach to get valuable insights for your organisation. For example, if you were presenting a case study about a new engagement program that you’re about to roll out, you could ask questions like:
How do you keep executives engaged in the journey?
What trends do you see emerging in our industry?
How did you communicate this change to employees?
What metrics are you using to measure success?
“This is all anecdotal information, of course. It’s not the same as going out and doing a proper market research report. But it allows you to have insight into what people are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and the problems that you could help solve.”
2. Identify collaboration opportunities
Blackman suggests trying to view the guest list ahead of attending a networking event (if available) to plan who you might like to speak with and how you might work together in some capacity.
For example, you might peruse the list to look for organisations that have been doing interesting things in a space that your organisation is struggling in, such as developing an effective hybrid work culture, and make an effort to speak to them about their approach. Or, if your business is looking to hire, it could be a good opportunity to start making connections with prospective job candidates.
However, Blackman warns against turning networking into a hard sell.
“I don’t think of networking as a selling opportunity. Yes, you are selling yourself, but I think that’s more about allowing people to align with the values that you have and assessing if they want to work with you.
“So it’s much more about developing relationships. Most of the work we’ve done in our business has been because of the relationships we’ve formed and the networks that we have – and those are long-term clients.
“These people then become your business development managers, because they’ll refer you to their network and it goes on and on. It’s that ripple effect.”
3. Build your brand and gain visibility
If you don’t have a large marketing or social media budget, networking is a great way to build buzz around your business or personal brand.
For Blackman, when she was starting her business, she didn’t have a lot of connections in the business community, so networking became paramount.
“It’s a way to get your name out there, for people to understand your expertise and whether you are credible or not.”
To demonstrate this to them, you need to perfect the art of the elevator pitch.
“If you can practice and then nail that, it will make you come across as coherent and polished. Networking events have allowed me to learn how to quickly and succinctly present myself.”
Having an elevator pitch prepared also helps to avoid accidentally diminishing yourself when you talk about your organisation, as you’re less likely to use phrasing such as, “I’m just an account manager,” or, “I work for this little marketing company, but it’s not that interesting…” or even just using a non-confident tone of voice.
“Rehearse it and say to yourself, ‘These are the three main things that I want to get across.’ Because the first impression is the most important, so you want to come across as professional. And don’t be afraid to demonstrate your expertise.
“Also, you don’t need to exchange 100 business cards. It’s better to make those authentic connections with a few people, like two or three, and make sure you follow up with them; send them an email or connect on LinkedIn.”
4. Seek feedback and validation
Some networking events – such as AHRI’s local networking forums – are regular, and the same people will often attend.
“In this instance, you have more of an intimate, close-knit group – you feel safe in that environment. So you can use these sessions to talk about your business and share business ideas. In a way, these people become your business advisory board. They’re able to bring in their own expertise and perhaps offer some advice or mentoring… Or maybe they’ve heard of a new innovation.”
As mentioned already, some networking events will allow you to give a presentation, so this is another way to get instantaneous feedback from your audience.
“And if there’s a Q&A section, you get information about where you might need to be more clear, or someone might ask you a question that you hadn’t even thought of.”
Networking can also be a great source of validation, she says.
“If people enjoyed your presentation or said they learned a lot from you, then you know that you’re on the right track.”