Whether we are a solopreneur, small enterprise or employee within a large corporate, the principles of effective networking are the same. A lot has been written about networking but these underlying principles are rarely properly identified, and opportunities to make connections with others are lost because the quality of what we communicate involves much more than effective networking skills. As with all communication, skills alone are insufficient to make meaningful and lasting connections with other people. Something more is needed that has to do with congruence in all communications with other people.
People working in small businesses spend a lot of time going to networking events for a number of reasons:
- To connect with other people in the same and different industries
- To market their services
- To create collaborations and new business opportunities
- To secure new clients
- To socialise
There are some common communication mistakes that people make before, during and after networking events. These mistakes limit the benefits we derive from networking. Let’s examine these in order to make some important changes that will positively affect our business and make networking more enjoyable.
Before The Networking Event
- We often make prior assumptions about whom we will find useful at a network event, and actively seek out these people. We may believe that only certain people at a particular level of seniority or from a particular industry will be useful, and avoid interacting with those who don’t fit our view of who will be worth talking to.
- With this predetermined view of who would be useful, we concentrate on making links with a limited set of people. We overlook the value of many other people who could benefit us enormously in unexpected ways. These people are often known to others, and could be introduced to us if we were more open to unexpected opportunities.
- Many of us prepare for the event by focusing on refining our elevator pitch about the benefits of a product or service, rather than clarifying our values and passions, which are just as important to communicate who we are to others.
During the Networking Event
- Delivering the standard elevator pitch about the merits of a product or service might seem like a good use of time, but the people who are really remembered after an event are usually those who are funny, who ask questions or provide an element of intrigue about what they do. We should not be single in our focus.
- Opportunities are lost when we are given thirty to sixty seconds to communicate about our business to the whole audience and spend it giving a list of what our product or service does. This is no more than random marketing, often falling upon deaf ears as the message is lost in the crowd or missed by others who are preparing to stand up next and do the same.
- Avid business card collecting is another bad habit, that only gives us the daunting job later of going through a large pile of cards trying to remember each person and thinking how to say something different to each one in a follow-up email, to avoid the impression of spamming.
After The Event
- Very few people follow up with others after an event. This may be because we can’t remember who anyone is from our collected pile of business cards or because our mind went into overload after all the elevator pitches. If we haven’t made a note on their business card of something memorable about each person, we may find ourselves wanting to connect with a one of them but no longer knowing who that person is.
- Some of us see network events as an opportunity to build an email list, later irritating or boring people with monthly newsletters that the recipients have not signed up for or can’t remember who they come from.
- A common habit of many of us is to ‘unsubscribe’ from any emails from people who communicate with us after an event because we don’t think the emails are particularly useful to us. Whilst it can be irritating to be put on a mailing list which we haven’t subscribed to, unsubscribing basically says ‘I don’t want to hear from you’. If the email is a genuine attempt to reach out and not a sales pitch or thinly disguised spam, then the subscriber may be considered bad-mannered, and this will not be easily forgotten.
Why Networking Is Like Dating
Networking is rather like dating – it has to be taken in stages, and if we come on too strong too early, we can put people off and lose opportunities to make closer connections. Imagine you meet a potential romantic partner for the first time. Would you walk up, grasp their hand tightly, look them in the eye and tell them all the benefits of going out with you? Of course you wouldn’t – unless you wanted them to beat a hasty retreat. Then why do it in a networking event?
Let’s say you get past the first encounter and invite your potential date out for a coffee of lunch. Would you ask them to marry you or have children with you? For the majority of us, moving so quickly through the stages of a relationship would bring a very quick end to it. So why would we meet someone at an event, tell them of all our merits and why they should go out with us and then after a first 1:1 meeting ask them to make a long term commitment and ‘forsake all others’?
This analogy maybe overstated, but we all know someone who has done this. We also know of people who have overlooked others with wonderful products and services to offer but who are not heard because they don’t communicate as well as they could.
Communication is much more than speaking out assertively and clearly and aligning this with confident body language. Communication is what we convey to someone about ourselves in every encounter with them. Our messages have to be thought about carefully and aligned with our actions, since incongruence between what we say and what we do will be interpreted as our being untrustworthy. That is why a person may learn to market the value of their product or service, but if they don’t pay attention to truly connecting with other people and learning about what is important to them, they lose important opportunities.
Good Communication Starts With Us
During the research for my recent book Communicate, I interviewed twenty-two CEOs/senior executives from four different countries and a wide range of industries. Some come from organisations with hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide whilst others work in SMEs with smaller operations. I wanted to know what they thought had contributed to their success, and ask their advice about communication. Whilst there were similarities in their responses, there were also differences depending on their specific situations. However, there was one thing that they all agreed upon: every single one of them said that to be an effective communicator, a person must have an on-going high level of self-awareness and self-knowledge.
To be an effective communicator, we must:
- Constantly evaluate how and why we react to and perceive things as we do
- Take 100% responsibility for everything that happens to us
- Question our part in every outcome we get in our lives
- Self-reflect on how we have contributed to others’ reactions to us
- Ensure our communication is congruent across time and situation
The findings of my research highlighted something very important about the importance of communication in being successful. These executives said that in order to be successful they focused on forming real connections with other people, and worked hard to ensure that every message to other people was consistent.
In networking it is important to use the opportunity to connect with other people and form a foundation upon which conversations about business can be had. We may think that we have to be highly efficient, and that providing information about our business is all others want. But what works is being interesting and memorable, and showing interest in what they do and what their problems and challenges are. They may do business with us in the future or open doors for us with other people. The chances of this happening are dramatically increased if we allow such conversations to occur by building a relationship with them which demonstrates we are trustworthy and not just there to sell to them. Like dating, if we move in too quickly the rewards are unlikely to be long-lasting.
Effective communication is essential if we are really to benefit from networking. Communication is an alignment between everything we say, do and convey to others. A high level of self-awareness and self-reflection allows us to examine the messages that we send to others. And when there is congruence between everything we say and do, potential customers will trust us and be attracted to us, knowing that we are likely to deliver what we promise.