Building a professional network has always been a crucial skill for entrepreneurs and career changers, and is more so today than ever. Because we are so connected technologically, it feels as if we have a wider network of connections.
That’s the feeling, but is it real? Who, of your connections, do you actually know?
An article in Psychology Today states that “social media facilitates a virtual form of interaction. The term ‘virtual’ is used to describe things that are not real, but which take on the important qualities of the real.”
Some important qualities of relationship building, however, cannot be replicated by even the best social media platform. People don’t always check in and ask themselves; “who do I know well enough to call if I want support?” Are these so-called friends and connections people I’d like to get to know better?”
You likely have connections of every kind – influencers, thought leaders, mentors, professional connections, fans, followers, social connections, communities, friends we know, and friends we don’t. It’s tiring just thinking up the categories. Who has the energy or time to engage effectively with so many people?
We know there are amazing people in these circles we run in. Identify choice connections and whenever connections can evolve from the virtual to the real, you have an opportunity to deepen the connection.
A real, emotional connection is enhanced by actual human interaction. Establishing more real connections is the best way to facilitate you being of service to them and vice versa, in times of change or need.
So, connect away, but don’t stop there. Meet people and include traditional networking into the mix.
Here are a few tips for networking success:
1. Shift your perspective on networking. Many people tell me that they don’t want to network because they feel like opportunists. They feel they will be seen as “looking to get something from the people in the room.” I was taught from the start that networking is fun. Thank goodness. It’s about creating relationships with new people. That’s all. They might provide interesting conversation. They might become friends. They might be good referral sources.
You aren’t there to take from them. You are there to meet them, find out who they are and about their interests. Ideally, think of something that might support or help them in their endeavors. That’s about it. Most likely, after talking to them about what they do, they will ask you what you do. And, you will get some practice explaining that in a clear and interesting way. Hopefully, you are interested in what you do, and that will come across in the way you communicate. If you need to hone that message, this is your opportunity to test it.
2. Reach out beyond your norms. When you show up to a networking event of any kind, you might scan the room to see who you want to meet. Typically, we locate people who appear easy to approach and we choose them. Experts suggest that you lose the assumptions and push yourself to speak to a person in the room who would not be a typical “go to” person for you.
Eliminate judgment and make a special point to go up to someone who looks like they might have nothing in common with you at all. Make a game out of challenging yourself to strike up a conversation with a stranger whom you wouldn’t instinctively choose, and see what you do in that circumstance. You may be surprised by them and by your own ingenuity. It’s a confidence builder and may result in unexpected and valuable connections that would have surely been overlooked.
3. Prepare your one-liner. Come to any gathering prepared with a professional summary of what you do. Practice saying it in advance. People milling around, having short conversations, requires that you have an equally short presentation at the ready for when they ask you to describe what you do. We all do many things, so that question could be answered in a multitude of ways. You may quickly lose the chance to present your business if you focus on your love of parenting.
There is nothing wrong with talking about something other than your business or career at a networking event, but you are probably there to let people know who you are professionally, so creating a succinct and intriguing message (30-60 seconds) is key. There are many ways to structure the statement you make, so it’s clear and touches people emotionally with the outcome or service you provide.
A format established by Storybrand’s Donald Miller is:
- Identify your customer’s problem (your customer could be a company)
- Explain your plan to help them
- Describe a successful ending to the story
An example he uses: “Most businesses struggle to talk about what they offer. We have a process that helps them clarify their message so their companies start growing again.”
People hearing this would be inclined to ask for more information on the process if they were a potential customer with this problem.
In summary, if you can go into networking situations with a mindset of service and curiosity, letting go of any preconceived notions that your focus is self-centered, you can find the fun in the process.
Reaching out to new and less predictable people in the room will test your courage and possibly surprise and delight. This might also teach you a valuable lesson in prejudging people. I know it has for me.
Communicating your interesting and clear message about your goals will spark a potentially longer-term connection with the right person. A follow-up coffee or phone chat to learn more are appropriate next steps in the interaction.
This is the process that expands your network, which will inevitably multiply your opportunities and quite possibly your income over time.