I used to work in a theatre, and before every show, there would be the “opportunity” to schmooze with important people. I hated it. I used to try and find jobs to do and places to hide to avoid having to go up to people, introduce myself and try and avoid the usual small talk topics – after all, no one really wants to talk about the weather, do they?
I would either go down to the box office and rearrange leaflets or chat to the box office staff when they weren’t serving customers, or I would escape to the office which was way up in the gods (at the very top of the theatre), and do some work until the relief of the announcement that the show was about to start. Every time that happened, I could physically feel my body change – from tense and uncomfortable to relaxed and ready to take my seat where we would spend the next couple of hours not needing to make awkward conversation with people.
The intention of this blast from the past is to tell you that I too hated the idea of networking. But I now quite enjoy it (in the context of my business, at least!), so I thought I’d share how I managed to shift my mindset and began to make valuable business connections.
The most important part: I started small
The idea of walking into a crowded room still makes me shudder. I always get nervous before a networking meeting for that reason, but when I first started freelancing I decided to build myself up to that.
My favourite kind of networking is 1-2-1. You can sit down over a tea, chat and really get to know someone – I’ve made some of my strongest connections this way. This is what I decided to do first when I started out on my own and wanted to find likeminded people.
I began researching, trying to find freelancers in my local area. I knew I wanted to connect with people that would be dealing with similar issues to me in finding work, and that I could collaborate with by sharing my skills and vice versa.
As a copywriter and blogger, I knew website designers would benefit from knowing me, and so I started searching Google for local designers, introducing myself by email and asking if they ever wanted to meet and chat. The vast majority came back with a yes. Being a freelancer can be isolating, so any chance to get out and meet someone is a plus.
The best thing about these meetings is that you aren’t trying to sell yourself – you are simply sharing your experiences and ideas in a more relaxed environment. You don’t have to worry about an elevator pitch, but with the right friendly impression, you’ll be remembered.
From 1-2-1 to a close-knit group
In one of the first 1-2-1 meetups I had, a networking group was recommended to me. I was nervous about the idea, but I knew that realistically I needed to get myself in front of more people to improve my chances.
I decided to go along as a guest with them – at least I knew one person there! But honestly, I struck gold with this particular group as I was made to feel welcome straight away. Networking and making connections is about finding those people who can support you just as much as it’s about finding new clients to work with.
As this particular group were so friendly, I was made to feel at ease immediately. In the early days of your connection-building journey, you’ll want to experiment with a few different networking groups to find the one that not only seems the best for your business and target audience, but also for you personally.
Listen carefully and always be learning
You have likely heard this advice about networking before, but I’ll say it again because it’s super important. When talking to a fellow business owner, listen to their struggles instead of going in with a hard-sell.
People worry about making connections for their business because they assume they need to be good at selling, but really what they need to be good at is listening and learning.
When asking about what somebody’s business is all about, listen carefully and make the most of learning about different industries. Don’t immediately write someone off as “not worth knowing” if they do something you aren’t particularly interested in or if they aren’t what you would deem the right type of client. You never know who they might know, and if you listen well, ask good questions and make a true connection with someone by being friendly and personable, they are more likely to want to refer you to someone who will fit the bill. Trust me, it’s happened to me.
No one expects you to be a pro at networking and making connections from day one of being a freelancer – it’s something you develop over time. Start small, and slowly make your way out of your comfort zone to avoid feeling overwhelmed. When you take the pressure of trying to “sell” yourself away, networking becomes much easier and more natural.