12 November 2015

The Art of Networking

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Networking events are everywhere in Australia. I’ve lost count of the invitations I receive in my inbox daily, inviting me to meet like-minded business people. The last invitation I received was from a recruitment company designed to meet and greet recruiters, with a presentation, free wine on arrival and a discussion on recruiting in the current economy.  

In the effort to be fully transparent, in my past life I used to produce networking events. Most of them in the economic policy discussion space. Those events were always full, C-Suite executives arriving for lunch and a discussion on what could be done to secure the country’s economic future.

After attending 40+ networking events in a year I found myself wondering how beneficial they were from a networking point of view. From an information point of view they were excellent. I learnt more about the economy in my year in the position than I ever thought I’d learn. I learnt how to get below the hype and how to separate policy from politics. I met some amazingly talented and insightful people, and had some fantastic lunches.

But at the end of the day, I wondered how much use they had been from a networking perspective. When you’re at a lunch with 200+ people it’s next to impossible to have a genuine conversation with someone. The room is buzzing with noise, it’s difficult to hear the person you’re standing next to and five minutes after you move on to meet someone else, and you’re left with a vague impression and a business card.

But the point to networking is to meet new people, to expand your business network and meet possible new clients or in my case, speakers for the next events.

I once attended a networking event that had nearly 400 people crowded into a small bar in Pitt Street. It was disconcerting to walk in, knowing nobody and having no idea where to start. I arrived about an hour after it had started and arrived on my own. It took about two minutes to realise that groups had formed and the space per person was approximately -2cm per square inch. It was like being at dance party to be honest. Hundreds of people squeezed into a small space, shouting to be heard. I turned on my heel that night, and never went back.

That night was a watershed moment for me. When you put me behind a keyboard I’ve got an opinion on everything, and the words to express it. Put me in a room full of strangers and I have the vocal ability of a Lemming. Given I’ve spent the better part of decade producing commercial conferences, welcoming hundreds of delegates and standing in front of them speaking at the opening of the conference, you would think I would be confident speaking to strangers. I’m not.

But shy birds don’t get the worm so to speak. If you are determined to have a career in today’s business world, networking is an important skill you have to learn, and one I’ve developed over the years.

If you arrive at an event and stand against the back wall sipping your free wine or orange juice you’ll leave the event with the same network as when you arrived. While it can be hard to make a lasting impression at a networking event, and even harder to remember who the 30 people whose business cards you’ve collected are, a few skills will help you to make the most of your time.

Keys to Networking:

Confidence: This is by far the most important skill you need to learn to capitalise on the importance of a networking event. It’s up to you to make the most of the situation. Remembering that everyone is in the room for the same reason is a good place to start. Stand up straight, and smile. If you are shy, as a lot of people are, being at the event is already going to be uncomfortable for you. By standing tall you change your body’s reaction to your environment. By looking happy and friendly you’ll feel it.

Ask questions: During years of attending commercial conferences, luncheons and business events I’ve often been greeted with the same questions. “Who are you, what do you do, why are you here?” While these questions are fairly standard, if you’re answering them constantly you start to sound bored and robotic. When you introduce yourself, give them the answers before they ask. This is usually met by your new friend telling you their details, so make sure you have a topic of conversation ready to go. Engaging with others, showing interest is really the best way to get beyond the head-scratching “who was that,” moment when you find a business card at the bottom of your bag.

Be in the moment: When you’re at a crowded event, or a speed networking event, make sure that you take the time to be in the moment. There’s nothing more off-putting than talking to someone who is already scanning the crowd for their next target. It causes the person you're speaking to to feel as though they are holding you up, or wasting your time. While speed networking events are usually held to a minute or two, it is still easy to stay with the person you are talking to rather than looking for the next person. It comes down to the perception of being listened to. One of the main problems in conversation today is people listen to speak, they don’t listen to hear or understand. Whether you talk to a person for one minute or ten, give them your time. When you treat someone as worth your time, they will remember you.

Follow up: We’ve all had the moment after a networking event where we find ourselves wondering who we met, what we talked about and why you can remember two or three people but have twenty-odd business cards in your pocket. I try to make it a rule to ensure contact with the person within a day or two.  Usually it’s just a quick email to them saying that it was a pleasure to meet them. If they’re a potential speaker I may highlight with them a program I’m working on, and ask if they may be available for a follow up coffee to discuss the latest business trends or see if they may be interested in presenting.

Keeping track: I highly recommend you go to a Networking event with a pen. I use the pen to jot down a couple of bullet points on the back of the persons business card about what we may have spoken about, and something to use as a trigger so I can remember the person more clearly. For example, I may write something like “wore the red tie and gold tie pin,” or “was carrying a green bag.” By doing that as soon as I can after walking away, it helps to cement in my mind who the person was, and also helps when it comes to sending through the follow up email. If I’ve had 15 discussions during the event, having a bullet point or two regarding topic means I can accurately reference the conversation in the follow up email.

When you go to a networking event, what you are doing is establishing not only your own personal brand, but the brand of your organisation. Attending a networking event may be the first time another person has heard about your company. If you do it correctly, it may be the start of a long and fruitful business relationship.

And as the old saying goes, “it’s not what you know, it’s who.”

Mike Cullen has recently returned to Akolade after a period as the conference producer for one of Australia's leading economic think tanks. Mike began working in the conference industry in 2007 after looking for a career change from the high pressured world of inbound customer service. Mike has worked for some of the most well known conference and media companies in the B2B space and in his spare time is working on his first novel in a planned Epic Fantasy trilogy.

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