Make Networking Work for You

By Sue Safos, President, Dennison Creative

I’ll never forget the first time I went to a networking event as a business owner. I had recently left the corporate world, where networking meant meeting up with coworkers for lunch or happy hour. Now I was responsible for bringing in business — and networking was critical. Searching for networking events and opportunities…making time to attend industry functions…and socializing after a long business day. It was overwhelming.

It’s a well-known fact: not everyone likes to network. However, it’s proven time again that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Networking can make or break a company. The Business Networking Institute found that most business owners attribute more than 70% of their business success to word-of-mouth or referrals, and according to a LinkedIn survey, 85% of all jobs are filled via networking.

Yet, probably 99% of networking is a waste of time. It’s the other 1% that makes a difference.

“It doesn’t take hundreds of introductions to end-up with a great connection,” says business development trainer and coach Jill Mason, an expert on networking skills and best practices. “Just one meaningful connection can change your business or even your life.”

Over the years, here are few ways I’ve learned to incorporate networking into my routine – as well as some advice from others.

Follow Your Interests

I learned early on that to network effectively, I had to talk about things that interested me in ways that make sense for my personality. If you’re attending a conference, would you rather socialize in the hotel bar at the end of the day or attend a session on a topic that interests you?

My company works with many industries in the B-to-B arena, so I find there’s more to talk about when I attend events with similar clientele. I also prefer socializing in quiet environments where people are a more captive audience – around a lunch table, for example – versus noisy places where you’re on your own to strike up a conversation with strangers.

Mason finds her clients go through a similar struggle, doing what others think they should do versus following their own passions: “People who find networking difficult typically aren’t targeting their interests and desired connections. And that limits their ability to generate thoughtful, relevant and fun conversations.” Not everyone wants to talk about diesel equipment – yet it’s a topic I’m more than happy to discuss. Which brings me to my next point…

Plan Conversation Starters

We plan for business meetings; the same should happen with networking events. Whenever I have an event scheduled where networking will likely take place, I plan ahead. Who will be attending? Is there anyone in particular I want to make sure I meet? How will I introduce myself? Open the conversation?

Working in marketing, I also know it’s important to tailor your message to your audience. I like to think through how I will answer common networking questions – like “what brings you here today?” – and, when the time comes, present my company in a way that’s relevant to the people attending. What’s my elevator pitch? A little advance planning can go a long way. After all, networking is really all about marketing yourself.

And, when all else fails, make sure you’re up to speed on easy topics to discuss: popular culture, the local sports team, even the weather. These can provide a good segue into finding common interests.

Set a Goal

In addition to coaching others on networking skills, Mason finds networking is critical to her own business success. As the owner of Invision Strategies, she travels two to three weeks a year for her business — and has two young children with a host of outside activities. Finding time is not easy. She personally needs to set goals to help her stay focused: say, 10 new LinkedIn connections a month with one face-to-face meeting. She asks her already wide network to help her find the right events to attend. “I always tell people: ‘you don’t have to stay for hours.’ Following up with LinkedIn requests and individual appointments can provide a better opportunity to shine.”

That’s the key to making networking actually work for you: have a plan to follow up with the people you meet — via LinkedIn, email or personal call. Let them know you enjoyed meeting them, and schedule a face-to-face if possible.

Remember, You’re Not Alone

Whether you’re a self-proclaimed introvert or extrovert, “talking to strangers” probably doesn’t come easily. When all else fails, remember that everyone else in the room is probably also probably feeling “on.” Networking is about helping others out — not just promoting your own agenda. A little empathy goes a long way.

Jill Mason