Networking. We all know it’s the key to success in the web industry. Why else would social networking sites like Twitter flourish?
And yet, despite its necessity to our continual success, most of us are afraid of networking. The word conjures up images of smarmy door-to-door salesmen and industry “mixers” where everyone knows everyone else … except you.
If you’re shy, the very thought of networking can send you running. But even shy people can learn the skills necessary to build and expand their industry network.
Nowadays, networking comes in two forms: face-to-face, at industry events, conferences, or even on the bus, and online through forums, blogs and social networking sites.
Both online and face-to-face interactions employ the same tactics: you need to find some people who you want to network with and wow them with your charming personality. It’s easier than it sounds. Here are a few tips to help you improve your networking skills:
1. Don’t Think of it as “Networking”
Part of the fear-factor surrounding networking is the word “networking” itself.
Instead of trying to “network”, why don’t you go out to make a new friend? Why don’t you think of the upcoming industry event or a question on Twitter as an opportunity to help someone? When you solve someone’s problem or point him or her toward a useful resource, all in a friendly manner, you’re networking. That’s all there is to it.
Networking isn’t scary. It’s just making friends and helping people.
2. Set Yourself Mini-Challenges
At the beginning of a networking event or an online discussion, give yourself a mini-challenge. Say to yourself “By the time I leave tonight, two people will have asked me for my business card”, or “Before dessert is served, I will have got one person to open up about their web design problems.”
Make sure your challenge is quite small, so it can be completed in an evening, but still a bit of a challenge for you. Try to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. This way, you’ll reach out to people you might normally avoid.
If you attend an event with a friend or colleague, perhaps you could give each other a mini-challenge. Adding this competitive aspect can give you added courage to talk to people.
Identify potential contacts – people with power in your niche whose ideals and personality fit yours.
You don’t always have to aim straight for the top players – everyone will be trying to court their favor.
Look for young innovators, those with truly original ideas and fresh perspectives. If you can find the people who will become the new industry leaders, and give them something of value, they’ll remember you.
As well as researching the people you want to meet, research the event itself. You’ll feel more comfortable and confident if you can prepare. Will refreshments be served, or should you eat beforehand? What will the dress code be? Is it appropriate to bring your portfolio or Blackberry along?
4. Approach Smaller Groups
When attending a networking event, staring at a room full of potential contacts and not knowing where to start can be a frightening experience. You might be tempted to join the largest, most lively group. Instead, look for smaller groups of three-four people – you stand a better chance of engaging in real, honest conversation and forging lasting relationships.
This works in online networking as well. If you see a discussion on Twitter or LinkedIn with only a few participants, your voice will be more easily heard than in a situation where twenty or more people are adding their comments.
5. Listen more than you talk
Here’s the real trick to meeting people, and one shy people can utilize most effectively: most people want to talk. They’ve got a problem (or several), and they’re all too happy to unload that problem onto whoever seems the most receptive.
Often, people don’t want to be told they’re wrong, or have a discussion about their problem. Often, they just want someone to listen.
So be a listener.
6. Practice your “elevator” pitch
An “elevator” pitch is so-named because it’s the pitch that’s so quick you can tell someone on an elevator ride and they’ll be hooked before the doors open.
Remember, you’re not trying to sell something. You’re trying to connect with people and forge new business relationships. Your elevator pitch needs to reflect who you are, what you’re about, and what you can do to help.
7. Follow Up
At the event, ask for the business cards or contact details of your new contacts. The next week, follow up with a quick email or phone call. You have to keep the relationship alive; otherwise, you haven’t really networked at all.
If you discussed a particular topic, perhaps you could do a little further research and send them an interesting article or point out a new blog on the subject.
Follow up online discussions with a note on their social networking page or a private email. Let the person know you’re interested in exchanging ideas on the topic, and offer them some interesting points for discussion.
8. Be Relaxed, Polite and Interesting
Relax! Networking isn’t that difficult. If you’re a genuine, interesting and honest person, eventually, others will see that too.
Whether you’re at an event or online, remember your manners. Don’t interrupt someone when they’re talking. Wait for a lull in the conversation before making your point. If you’re quite shy, it can take a bit of practice to learn the best times to speak up.
Always refute points, not people. Phrase your arguments in a polite and friendly way. You don’t have to agree with someone all the time just because you want to network with them. Most people enjoy engaging with colleagues who challenge their thinking, as long as they do it in a pleasant way.
Remember, the key to networking is giving. Give information, give advice, give your services, and give your personality, and you’ll be well on your way to forging genuine, lasting business relationships.