Thursday 24 May 2012

Startup Networking Mastery

I used to dread being amongst a group of strangers. To say I was shy would have been an understatement. I didn’t like the results of being the invisible church mouse so I set out to change that.  Today, after developing into a media mogul, I can comfortably walk into a room of a hundred strangers and leave with dozens of business cards, a few coffee meetings and a couple of new friends.

Here are some basic and killer tips: 

I would have never met Sir Richard Branson without ace networking skills

Speak authentically
Networking is really about engagement on a one to one level; the first step in building a relationship.  Business and collaboration are just about people cooperating with others. We all prefer to work with people we like and trust.  To gain trust and build rapport we need to speak authentically and naturally and not worry about trying to impress.

Relax and Be Yourself
Networking advice is often packaged in forgettable lists best left at home. One lesson the citizen journalism era has taught us; authenticity is a winning communication style for engagement. My very best advice is probably the same as your parents’ used to tell you; just be yourself.  You may be pleasantly surprised to learn how many people are interested in you.

Show Interest in Others
The takeaway from my early shaking shyness research; build rapport by showing interest. People love to talk about themselves and if you indulge them, they just may love you too. Demonstrating interest through questions can be a wonderful opportunity to learn about business strategies, opportunities and challenges. Armed with helpful ideas of how to collaborate, you shouldn’t have difficulty finding something meaningful to talk about.

Keeping Topics Straight
I find it helpful to make notes on the backs of business cards as reminders of who’s who and the discussion. This allows follow up conversations to be as intelligent as the initial dialogue.

Set a Strategy
I generally set out objectives for every business encounter, from staff standups to partner phone calls to client meetings. We never have enough time with people who are important to us, so best to maximize the outcomes.

Strategies for networking environments can vary.  For example it will obviously be difficult to have an impact on everyone at a 300 person reception.

If your networking goal is to create awareness about a mass audience brand, then meeting everybody in the room briefly could make some sense.  If you have a more specific business, for example niche services customized for medical professionals, then it’s great to meet people, to be friendly and present yourself well, but you really want to value your time and focus on memorable, quality encounters with brand influencers, users or prospective clients.

It makes sense to spend most of your time with people who express an interest in you and your business, and who can directly or indirectly be helpful.

Sometimes the Strategy Doesn’t Work Out
Don’t be hard on yourself. If you miss your mark during a networking function remember life is full of learning opportunities and try again next time.

Deciding to Stay or Go
Limit your time with people who show no level of interest in you, as a person, or in your business. You are better off to politely move on to more interested pastures.

Once you have successfully nudged your way into a circle, and have the attention of an interested party, how are you going to keep it? Attention spans tend to be short at networking functions; your audience may disperse quickly. Ensure you have everyone’s business cards and be ready to continue the conversation at another time. Being direct at a networking function is OK.  Ask about a follow on meet up.

When more dialogue is encouraged - go for it. Strike while you’re hot.

Networking Etiquette
If you are in a purely social environment, you have to ask yourself if the situation warrants going into business speak. If you come across as a sales chick at a mixed black tie you risk turning people off. You never have a second chance to make a first impression, so it’s a judgment call whether asking for business contacts would be most appropriate.

Unless it’s one of those elevator pitch timed scenarios, being too pushy may backfire. Cultural etiquette must be considered as well. When speaking with people where relationships must be established before business can progress, conduct yourself accordingly.

I was invited as a keynote speaker at the Dubai Business Women’s Association a few years ago. This was the most highly networked group of people I have ever met. Business cards
were swapped at record speed and the elevator pitch was the flavor of the day.  No apologies!

I wish more functions were like that.

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