How to network like a pro

Some people are born networkers. They circulate with professional grace, pick up contacts with ease, and they always seem to have the right thing to say. For the rest of us, it's often more difficult. But take heart, says business journalist Sara Goodwins - those skills can be learnt

By Sara Goodwins

"The old school tie." "It's not what you know but who you know." "The old boys' network." Networking receives a lot of criticism, but such cynicism is undeserved. We all build up contacts of friends, colleagues and relations. The term "networking" merely recognises something we do naturally and formalises it as a valuable business asset.

Preparation is essential if you want to sparkle at networking. Meeting people is only part of the process; you need also to have thought about what you want to achieve. If you're networking as part of a conference or seminar, do your homework and make sure you know who's likely to be there, who you want to meet, and what relevance they have to your own field.

If you're reinforcing contacts with someone you already know then check the details of your previous meeting. Know your facts but don't flaunt your knowledge - it can make people nervous or suspicious. Nobody likes to feel stalked!

Building up a network relies almost entirely on personal communication skills. Some people are naturally friendly and sociable, but there are many techniques which can be learnt.

Be a friendly professional
Be friendly rather than intrusive, confident rather than desperate. Sue Brown, President of Business and Professional Women UK, says: "For networking to be effective people must approach it with an open mind and be prepared to give as well as take from the situation." Make sure you have a good supply of accurate business cards - crossing out obsolete phone numbers or scribbling a new e-mail address on a cheque stub not only looks unprofessional but creates an unproductive lull in conversations.

Beginning a conversation with a solitary stranger, particularly in a crowd, should be relatively easy as they will probably be only too pleased to have someone to talk to. Helen Vandevelde (see tip box) has good advice on how to begin. You're looking for common interests, shared experience, useful expertise, etc, so remember to listen as well as speak. Don't be afraid to ask whether there is anyone else you should be talking to.

Volunteer information about yourself, and your contact will almost certainly reciprocate. Sue Brown again: "Making the people you are networking with feel valued is very important. They feel more inclined to build on the relationship, which leads to a positive outcome for everybody concerned."

If you're joining a group wait for a lull in conversation and then make a comment about what has been under discussion. If you can't do so relatively easily, ask yourself whether you should be networking with this particular group. Time is important in successful networking. Spend five to ten minutes with each contact or group and then move on. Make a clean break by adding that you "don't want to keep them now." Then begin again with someone else.

Following up
If you've made a good contact tell them that you're pleased you've met and will call them when you're back in the office. If you haven't, express polite interest in their conversation but make no mention of keeping in touch.

For networking to be productive you need to keep meticulous records of who you've spoken to, where, about what, and when. With every subsequent contact you should update your records. Yes, it's time-consuming, but it does save time and trouble in the future - and it's surprising how much confidence such records can give you when contacting people.

So once their name is in your little black book, how frequently should you contact them? Dropping them an e-mail a few days after the initial meeting is often a good idea to say how nice it was to meet them, etc (and remind them who you are!). After that, enquire how things are with them every few months and send brief news about what you're doing.

Many people are unwilling to network because they feel it's akin to exploitation. Avoiding using people is common politeness but don't forget that networking is a two-way process. Your business contacts will also be networking with you. Would you mind being contacted by someone you liked whom you met through business and who is now asking for your help? Anyone you contact will probably feel much the same as you do.

Whether you're comfortable with networking or not, of one thing you can be certain: you're already part of someone else's network. Knowing that's the case, why not get busy and build up your own?

Be a nifty networker!
Helen Vandevelde is a well-known speaker delivering seminars and conference presentations on modern business networking. Here are Helen's tips exclusively for ON! Office Networks readers:
Break the ice by introducing yourself - name, job, company - and then say 'And you?'
Seek out groups where the conversation is less animated; you don't want to upset the chemistry of a group which is going well
When talking to someone potentially uninteresting, stay polite, let the conversation finish, and don't look past them to scan for more promising contacts!
It takes longer than five minutes to discover whether you have common ground - be patient
Avoid clinging to one person. Desperation makes you look like a magnet searching for a fridge!

A freelance writer for over twenty years, Sara Goodwins has researched and written about a multitude of different topics. She specialises in business and education and her features are regularly published internationally.

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