A colleague recently mentioned to me that she polled some business students and the number one thing they wanted to learn was networking. I was a little surprised by this! Who needs to learn to network?
I grew up with a business owner father who was capable of talking to anyone, anywhere. He’d always come home with stories that started with “Today I met…” And don’t even get me started on my pre-teen mortification as he spent 15 minutes talking to the grocery store checker.
But it turns out that not everyone grew up like this. For some people, networking doesn’t come naturally. Which is a challenge, because networking is really critical to the success of your business.
Why does networking matter?
First and foremost, networking matters because you can’t run a business by yourself. I’m not talking about employees here. A business needs people. Not just customers, but allies, cheerleaders, and promoters. And the best way to meet these people is by going to events and networking.
The second is that your business needs buzz in order to grow. And the best way to develop some buzz is to meet people and tell them about what you do. The more you talk about your business, the more likely it is that other people will do so as well.
Third, your business needs resources. You never know when you’ll need to do something that’s outside your wheelhouse or comfort zone. At conferences, I’ve met designers, photographers, web people, and so many others that I can utilize to help me grow my business.
And finally, networking is a great way to learn. I charge $250 an hour for consulting. The Marketing for Makers e-course is $500. But I gave out a lot of information free. All you have to do is sit down next to me at a conference. And the same goes for many other people. People will share a lot more about their businesses with someone they meet at a conference than with someone who emails them out of the blue online.
If you aren’t networking, you’re missing out on growing your business. But I understand that networking makes some people uncomfortable.
If you didn’t grow up with a gregarious roll model, you can still develop your networking skills. Here are some suggestions to help you network like a rock star the next time you find yourself at a conference or event:
Go with clear intentions. Last week I was in Salt Lake City for the Alt Design Summit. And I went with a networking plan in place. I knew the areas of my business I most wanted to promote, and the people I wanted to connect with. And social media has made it even easier to plan your networking goals. Prior to going, I created a Twitter list of speakers, and paid attention to the Alt Summit hashtag. I knew who was going to be there and who I wanted to meet. With these networking goals in mind, I was confident that I’d see a return on my investment at the conference.
But be open to the possibilities. While it’s important to go with goals in mind, it’s equally important to be open to meeting and talking with everyone. I made some fantastic contacts because we sat next to each other at dinner or stood in line together at the bar. Contacts that I didn’t even know I wanted to make! When it comes to networking, chance is just an important to planning. So don’t disregard anyone just because they aren’t on your target list. You never know who they are!
Speak up. At every panel I went to, I sat in the front and asked questions. (Yes, I’m still that same girl from elementary school.) But here’s the thing. People remember those people. (Especially when you ask insightful questions.) When I asked a question, both panelists and audience members noticed, and I talked to more than a few people as a result of asking a question during a session. Yes, raising your hand to ask a question takes a little bravery. But the rewards far outweigh the (perceived) risks.
Introduce yourself. A conference is no time to sit in silence. Every time you sit down next to someone new, introduce yourself. I know this seems like an obvious one, but so many people don’t do it, that I felt compelled to mention it.
Ask questions first. You can still meet people even if you’re uncomfortable talking about yourself. One of the best strategies is to ask other people questions. It’s a great way to start a conversation, especially if you’re a little hesitant to just introduce yourself. Keeping a few simple questions in rotation, (“Is this your first time at Alt?” or “Where are you from?”) is a great way to start a connection.
Try to have fun. Remember that your fellow attendees aren’t snarling monsters, they’re just people. If you’re shy and networking makes you uncomfortable, then you’re likely to assume that the person next to you is a snob for not introducing themselves. But the truth is, they’re probably just nervous too! When you make a point to relax and enjoy meeting new people, it makes the whole situation a lot easier.
Follow up. Of course, meeting new people is only half the battle. Keep those business cards you collected (you did collect them, right?) someplace safe, and follow up when you get home. It doesn’t have to be complicated. A brief “it was great to meet you” email can be enough to continue the connection.
Networking is crucial for the success of your business, and it really can be simple. Relax, say hello, and remember to have fun, and you’ll be on the right track when it comes to growing your business!