3 pieces of advice for successful networking

By Graeme Somerville-Ryan

Dating and business networking. Most often, two separate topics and scenarios. However, there are a number of striking similarities. First impressions, the fear of rejection, the presence of alcohol, and holding out hope that you’ll get a ‘follow-up’ call or email—it’s all basically the same.

No matter what industry or profession you are in – human resources, shipping, government, professional services, energy, finance, IT (the list goes on) – networking is an integral part of professional life. But how much work do you put into developing your most basic networking skills?

I was recently asked to give a presentation on networking. I have no love for public speaking and I really don’t like ‘cold’ networking –which apparently made me a natural choice as a presenter. That’s the problem when you are in ‘marketing’, it’s your job. Well, it’s your job to tell others how to do it.

Being an ‘interactive’ kind of guy, who desperately needed to fill in presentation time, I asked who in the room enjoyed networking. It didn’t surprise me that only two lonely hands went up.

What did surprise me though was who those hands belonged to. The guy with the shaved head who I’ve only ever had brief conversations and who I really needed to make more of an effort with…and a person who retreated from public humiliation before I could single him out.

Were there any hands up from the top sales guys or senior executives? No.

And this was in a business were individual ‘person-to-person’ (not P2P) connections are everything. So it seems that almost everyone hates networking, even the people who are good at it. But networking is about first impressions and, as you only get to make a first impression once, it is important to try and do a decent job.

For my presentation I came up with nine networking tips, but post-presentation, these would be my top three pieces of advice.

1. Prepare and practice

You would prepare for a formal business presentation or a meeting. You would prepare for a job interview. You would prepare for a pitch. You would prepare for a first date, and a second. You might even prepare for a third date. I digress…slightly.

Networking preparation isn’t about going online and stalking every other attendee at an event. It’s about preparing what you are going to say about yourself, how you fit into the situation, and why you might be of interest to the other people in the room.

This shouldn’t be a 15 minute monologue about your professional successes and how good looking you are; it should be a simple introduction that creates openings for the other person to talk about themselves and their business. You can use humour– but just remember this is the first impression you are giving.

To get this right you need to practice. In front of a mirror, to the cat/dog, someone off the street…it doesn’t matter. Practice makes perfect, but be prepared to adapt on ‘game-day’ just in case you’re not as interesting as you think…which is probably accurate.

2. Understand the situation.

Almost EVERYONE dislikes networking. It is something you have to force yourself to do. It is much easier to find an excuse to not show up. It is much easier to find a friend or colleague at the same event and to block out the surrounding activity. This being the case, those who ‘get it’ (and who have prepared) have a number of immediate advantages:

a. People don’t mind you introducing yourself…they might even be relieved to have someone to talk to.

b. Actively bring other people into a group conversation. They will be thankful and will most likely be more than happy to be involved.

c. The more ‘active’ you are the more you will be seen as being a connector.

A vital part of successful networking is finding other people interesting. This is something the best networkers do with ease.

3. Understand what you are going to get out of networking.

Chances are you will get nothing out of a single networking event. And trying to ‘get something’ out of a networking opportunity will probably make you appear to be someone who is after a job, and/or someone who is to be avoided at future events. This is not an ideal reputation to have.

Successful networking is about putting other people’s interests before your own. That is the impression you want to leave.
So what should you look to get out of an event you don’t really want to be at?

Here are a few realistic networking KPIs:

- Be selfless: Look to connect other people (both before and after the event).

- Be outgoing: Touch base with the people you know, but set yourself a simple target of meeting a handful of new people (not too many – see below).

- Be attentive: Take a real interest in other people. This means spending time with them and listening to what they do and what they are interested in. Don’t just talk about yourself.

- Be thoughtful: Follow up after the event. Continue to make connections and look for ways to help other people.

Looking at the above list it sounds like acceptable behaviour for a successful date. And I think, in many respects, networking is just that – speed-dating. The basic principles are the same, just the outcomes are different (you better hope…but perhaps that’s for another article).

Networking can’t be avoided. Sooner or later, no matter what you do, you will find yourself in a room with 106 other people, holding a glass of mediocre over-priced wine and possibly a plate of meatballs (bad choice).

You’ll be hoping to find someone to talk to so you don’t appear to be a social outcast…and realising that even if you are introduced to someone you now can’t shake their hand (see…the meatballs were a bad choice).

But with a bit of planning, and courage, it’s actually not so hard to be an effective networker.

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