I’ve said it before and now I’m saying it again – although I hate networking, it’s an invaluable skill to have and really can boost your career. The good news is that, although some people are undoubtedly more at ease than others in strangers’ company, no one is a natural-born networker, so everything you need to know just has to be learnt and practised. What’s more, you don’t have to enter the fray in a frenzy of air-kissing and overly firm handshakes; soft-sell networking is, in my opinion, a lot more subtle, a lot less unpalatable, and just as effective. Here’s how I do it…
Spreading the love
If you meet someone who can be helped by contacts, information or knowledge you have, then go that extra mile, no matter how inconsequential the act of kindness might seem at the time. I once, on the same day, learnt that a PR acquaintance had been made redundant and that a different PR team was hiring, so I let each party know and the PR got the job – he’s been grateful and happy to help me ever since.
It’s good to aim to be remembered (for the right reasons) when meeting new contacts. Once, when I was speaking to a magazine editor whose job I would kill for, she mentioned that she couldn’t find any decent gastropubs in the area of London she had moved to – an area I knew inside out from my time as a restaurant reviewer. I offered to email her some recommendations – it meant I could legitimately get hold of her email address and also show off my knowledge of our subject. If I ever do contact her looking for work, reminding her of how we know each other should make me stick out in her memory. In any case, hopefully me taking the time to email her will have reinforced her opinion of me as a nice/competent/well-connected person.
About last night
Building on contacts in a subtle way is a cunning tactic to make yourself stand out from the crowd. I always email people the following day to say how nice it was to meet them – and I often try to send them a link to something we talked about during the evening, or something I think they might like. I’ve made good friends by putting myself out there and making contact – friends in high places, no less.
Small talk, big rewards
Small talk is the social lubricant that gets you talking to the right people about the right things, so use any situation to make it. I find that toilets are natural territory for small talk – in my experience, the cliché of women bonding as they re-touch their make-up holds up. Many a time I’ve retreated to the loos for a bit of networking time out, only to start chatting to someone while in there, who I can then exit with. Even outside of the ladies, small talk has its uses: you can direct a waiter towards a group you want to infiltrate and tell them, ‘You must try these canapés’, or strike up a conversation when something (anything!) happens – someone makes a faux pas, a technical fault delays the speeches, you see a famous person – whatever.
Know your limits
In general, anyone you talk to in the spirit of networking should be civil and polite at the very least. But beware of aiming too high, too soon. I once tried to infiltrate a group that was centred around a very famous restaurant critic who I had once interviewed. My plan was to join the group, remind him of the occasion and chat for a bit before slipping him my card. Unfortunately, I ended up being roundly ignored by everyone while I stood awkwardly with a glass in my hand. After a few cringey minutes (by which time my smile had solidified on my face), I had to back away.
She who dares
The world is already too full of self-important people, so when you’re meeting potentially useful contacts, try to strike a balance between not taking yourself too seriously and not underselling yourself. Laugh and joke your way through the occasion by all means, but if anyone mentions something you might be interested in – a job opening, a chance to guest-blog, or just someone they know who you’d like to meet, speak up.
When words fail you
If you’re not blessed with the gift of the gab or limitless self-confidence, then research and forward-planning are your best friends. Treat a networking event as you would an interview – think about what people are likely to ask you and prepare your answers accordingly. As a restaurant reviewer, the first thing people asked me was invariably either, ‘What’s your favourite restaurant?’ or, ‘Which restaurants have you visited recently?’ Even though I lived and breathed restaurants, occasionally my mind would go blank and I’d be struck dumb – not a great first impression to make. So I started prepping myself with a couple of stock answers before events to avoid awkward silences.
What tips do you have for effective networking? What have been your best wins?
p.s. Networking 1: How to work a room
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You make it sound so easy Nicky! I think my hatred of and uselessness at networking was one of the reasons I quit the PR world (who has ever heard of a PR who doesn’t like schmoozing?!). At my agency we had enforced networking targets as part of our personal development objectives, and our bonus was dependent on them. We had to attend at least one or two events a week and come back with at least four or five new contacts, and then we had to somehow “convert” those into new business leads. Which meant pestering them. It was not conducive to your kind of “light touch” networking that, under other circumstances, I might have possibly been able to get on board with. Too much pressure. I went on networking strike 😉
The ironic thing I guess is that now almost 100% of my income as a freelancer is dependant on contacts sending work my way. Most of them are ex-colleagues or ex-clients. I am crap at meeting new people, but I’ve always tried to be as nice/fun/helpful as possible to the people that I already worked with and for. Thankfully they’ve stuck with me and made up for my deficiencies in the networking department!
Oh my word, having your earnings depend on networking sounds horrendous! I way prefer the light touch approach, but can see it’s perhaps not always possible. But yes, it’s amazing how just being nice and thoughtful can ‘convert’ into work and dough! Thanks for your comment xx