Despite being in business for over a year now, networking still fills me with nerves and dread. I still get that horrible feeling in my stomach and wonder whether I should change my mind about going. I think of the excuse I could use, and sometimes genuinely start to feel ill because my body is saying “DON’T DO THAT THING, IT’S SCARY”.
It’s an exhausting and frustrating battle to take myself to networking events, but you know what? I never regret it. I never come out of a networking meeting agreeing with my inner-anxiety as if it was as terrifying as I led myself to believe it would be.
Here’s the truth – most people hate networking. It doesn’t feel ~natural~ a lot of the time, and the idea of walking into a room full of strangers and striking up conversations with them can literally feel like entering the lion’s den.
That’s the first and most important thing to remember. Feeling comfortable and confident about networking is a rare trait and so many other people you’ll meet are very much in the same boat. As the cliche goes, it really is about being yourself.
To mentally and physically prepare myself for a networking event, there are a few things I make sure to do…
Get up early
Most networking events I go to are in the morning. I limit the number of breakfast meetings because only crazy people like networking at 7am, but often meetings take place between 8am-10am.
Instead of rolling out of bed with just enough time to get dressed and go, I like to get up with enough time to ~chill~ so that I’m not frantic by the time I get there! This chill time tends to include a cup of tea, and a double-check of where I’m going, how long it will take to get there, and what the parking situation is like.
Dressing “smart casual”
The stuffy formal networking events aren’t for me, so quite often the dress code is categorised as “smart casual”. That will mean different things to different people, but for me, it’s all about being comfortable in what I’m wearing.
No, that doesn’t mean slinging on my Seahawks jersey and a pair of joggers – I usually opt for a dark denim pair of jeans and a blouse or smartish top. That was basically my “uniform” when I worked an office job, and it’s the perfect balance of looking like I’ve made an effort but also feeling comfortable in my skin. I tend to wear boots rather than heels because I prefer them, but they will have some height to them because I feel more secure when I’m lifted an inch or two.
Prepare a pitch
Most networking meetings give you the opportunity to deliver a short pitch about your business. This can vary from 30 seconds to an open-ended pitch but I would recommend keeping it brief and to the point, as I’ve lost count of the time someone will ramble on about their business for so long that time loses all meaning.
So what should your pitch involve? Who you are, what you do, who you do it for and what you need from your fellow networkers. Maybe you’re looking for new clients, or a service to supplement what you do? Don’t be afraid to ask.
It also helps if you’re a product-based business if you have any offers on or samples to show.
Business cards at the ready
It goes without saying that you should take business cards with you to a networking event!
You may be invited to leave cards on the table, but don’t forget to hand them out too! Don’t just hand them to anyone and everyone though, save them for people who you speak to 1-2-1 and feel they would benefit from your product or service.
Get there first
If possible, I like to get to a networking event nice and early so I can have some one-on-one time with the organiser. This is especially useful if you haven’t been to their networking event and want to know what to expect. It also gives the organiser the chance to find out about you and potentially introduce you to other attendees…saving that awkward feeling of walking over to people you don’t know.
Don’t like the idea of approaching a group already mid-conversation? SAME. I hate it. I feel like I’m intruding. Instead, I’ll find those that are also on their own and introduce myself. Or in all honesty, I do sometimes hover awkwardly and hope someone will do that to me. They almost always do.
Luckily, most networking events are formatted to allow you to make connections with people quite naturally. I really hate the events that force 1-2-1 time and get you to pick someone to chat to. This should happen naturally during the open networking after you’ve shared with everyone what you do.
The aim of the game with making connections is to try and arrange to meet outside of the networking group for a 1-2-1. This gives you both a chance to chat further about your business and how you can perhaps help each other.
The reality of networking is that it may not be anyone in the room who needs your service or product – but think bigger. Think about the number of people they know and meet.
Establish connections with people who work in a similar field to you or work with your target audience and get to know what they do so you can add further value to it. For example, as a copywriter, I enjoy meeting website designers and marketing consultants because there’s a clear link where we can help each other.
It’s important to follow up after networking events, as you often won’t see those same people until the next meeting which could be as far as a month away.
Take away business cards, and ping over an email to say how great it was to meet and if you have anything to offer them, don’t be afraid to go for it! The worst that can happen is that they say no.