When I attended business school Nyenrode in The Netherlands, time and time again the importance of the Nyenrode network and networking was drilled into me. For some reason, however, they never taught me how to be a good networker. Like networking is something you have to know instinctively and it cannot be taught or learned.
Over the time of some 25 years I have been to many network meetings and made lots of mistakes, but learned from them and from observing others. What I have learned I would like to share. I do not want to pretend to be complete or perfect, so please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.
Pay it Forward
For me, one of the basic lessons I learned is to help other people without expecting anything in return. Not because I believe in some secret universal power that will give a multiple return on investment. It is simply because I want to manage my own expectations on the one hand and to be sufficiently fulfilled by the act of helping others.
Paying forward doesn’t mean you have to give away what you normally would sell in your business, but that you could help people with things that aren’t business related. Like sharing your recipe for the best brownies ever. Or a recommendation for a great restaurant, or an introduction to someone they would like to meet. Another example is information that could be valuable to them. An article you found, or an article you wrote yourself.
There are numerous ways to help other people and pay it forward.
Be a Good Listener
In order to be able to help other people, you have to be a good listener. People cannot tell you what they need if you do all the talking. Listening to other people shows that you are truly interested in them and in what they have to say and that networking isn’t all about you and your interests.
An example of bad – or really not – listening happened last year at a networking event. I was talking to a very charming person. We had just met and started to talk when after about 5 minutes he said that he had some great information for me and he presented me with an information package. It turned out to be on dietary products he was selling. The conversation wasn’t about diets. I didn’t ask him for help on losing weight. The information was given to me out of the blue. Apart from it being very rude, it also showed he was a poor networker. Which was kind of ironic as he was in network marketing.
If you want to know what the other person is about and if you want to help them, you have to be a good listener and ask them questions. If networking is hard for you, prepare a number of relevant and general questions beforehand that you can ask. If you have a few questions memorized it will help you at every networking event.
The best question to ask while networking because it is about helping others, according to this article is: “How would I know I am talking to someone who would be a good contact for you?” Another good question is: “How can I help you?”
To show that you are really listening to the other person, follow up their answer to your question with another question and make the conversation interesting, fun and worthwhile.
Don’t Make Promises You Cannot Keep
When you are paying it forward, never make promises that you cannot keep.
You are tarnishing your own personal brand if you promise but do not deliver. Apart from letting other people down, you are letting yourself down.
Help not offered is better than offered help not given.
If you do not ask, you shall not receive
In my early days of networking, I always wondered why I was paying it forward to others while others never paid it forward to me. It turned out to be mostly my own fault. It took me some time to realize that if you do not ask, people do not know what they can do to help you. I am extremely self-sufficient, so I had to learn to ask and think about what it is that I need at that moment.
And mostly my own fault, but not completely, as it also says something about those people that didn’t pay it forward. They couldn’t pay it forward because I didn’t ask, but they didn’t ask either.
So if people are obviously not interested in you, try to shift the conversation. If that doesn’t work, find someone else to talk to.
Another thing to remember here is to be specific in what you need. Very often people contact me to tell me that they are looking for a new job and if I can help by asking around in my network. The problem with this question is that it is not very specific. I can contact everyone in my network to no avail because I wouldn’t know what to ask them nor do I know if their business or company is one the jobseeker would like to work at. The jobseeker is making me do all the work and I run the risk of looking like a fool within my network. It would be better if this person would ask: “I am looking for a marketing position with XYZ bank in The Netherlands. I have noticed that you know the marketing manager. Could you maybe introduce me to her?”
Remember that no one likes slimy pushy sales people, except maybe their mothers.
Also, no one likes being sold to at a networking event. At best it is unwanted. At worst it can get truly uncomfortable. Especially when the pushy sales person isn’t picking up on your “I am not interested” signals. The sign of a bad sales person is that (s)he is a poor listener. Perhaps because they too have fallen for the misconception that the best sales person is the one who talks a good game. Just talking as a skill will not get you very far, though.
Another often occurring phenomenon is people in network marketing, trying to sell their products at networking events. That is not why network marketing is called network marketing!
It is the always be selling attitude of some people at networking events that make others uncomfortable going there. Simply because they make the mistake in thinking that they have to start pushing their products as well, and feel uncomfortable doing so.
An organizer at network organization BNI once told me something I will never forget. He said that most sales leads in networking are not from your first degree contacts, but your second degree. Something to remember when networking!
So for the record: Networking doesn’t equal selling!
Prepare And Know Who You Want to Meet
When you go to a networking event, prepare and know who you want to meet and what you need help with.
If there is a public guest list look through it to decide who it is you want to meet based on what it is you need help with, now or in the future.
For instance, if you are thinking about writing your first book, you may want to talk to the published author and ask her if she can give you some tips. If you want to know about setting up a business, talk to the entrepreneur who has experience in doing so.
Before you go to an event, set your goals. For instance to meet three new people. Or to meet the 4 people on your list. Or to help 4 people with their question.
Don’t be a Wallflower
If you are going to be a wallflower you may as well not go to the event in the first place. Of course, that is easy to say and I must admit that I have stood and watched from the sideline many times in the distant past.
It is also why I try to talk to the person in danger of becoming a wallflower and introduce him or her to others or invite him to the conversation.
There are two things you can do yourself. You can ask the host or hostess to introduce you to someone. It is their job as host(ess) so don’t be afraid to ask. Also, you can have a quick look around to see if there is another wallflower and introduce yourself and strike up a conversation with the questions you so carefully prepared beforehand.
Don’t be a Brain Picker
True networkers should be willing to help and there is always the question of the balance between the givers and the takers. Remember that the willingness to help doesn’t mean that someone owes you to share everything they know. Especially when it comes to knowledge workers and service providers, varying from a massage therapist to a business strategy consultant, you have to be respectful of the fact that they have to make a living too. Their expertise and knowledge come at a cost.
That means that you shouldn’t zero in on the sales or tax consultant because could use their knowledge right about now. You have to be respectful of other people and not be a brain picker.
I remember going to a wedding with a friend and fellow alumnus who lived abroad. During dinner, we were seated with two fellow alumni, a couple who were running a successful business, who he hadn’t seen in a couple of years. My friend was a financial expert and I warned him beforehand that they were users and brain pickers. He said it couldn’t be that bad. Suffice to say that his financial brains were relentlessly being picked during dinner and long after until we escaped to the dance floor.
Networking Doesn’t Equal Handing Out Business Cards
Some people seem to think that networking is about handing out as many business cards as possible. It is not. Only hand out your business card after a meaningful conversation and only if you know this information is relevant to the other person.
Of course, you always have to have your business cards with you. Forgetting them is one thing. Not having business cards at all, is a deadly sin. As is having free Vistaprint business cards if you are a business owner. Those free cards are perfectly acceptable if you are between jobs, but if you are a business owner it just doesn’t look professional and hurts your brand.
Never Interrupt Two People Who Are Obviously Having a Great Conversation
Not every conversation you will have is a good one. It is just a fact of life. So when you are having a great conversation and someone interrupts, that really sucks.
In normal etiquette, it is a rule to never interrupt or join two people having a conversation. You can join someone standing alone. You can join groups of people of three and up, but never join a conversation of two.
So do not join two people as a silent spectator. Do not interrupt their conversation by telling one of them that you have been dying to meet them. Do not interrupt a conversation even if one of them is someone you know. Don’t interrupt a conversation to just say hello. Do not interrupt to offer a drink. There probably will be enough time to catch someone later, and if for some reason there isn’t you can also send that person an email that you wanted to talk, and ask if you could talk another time.
There is only one reason and one reason only when it is allowed to break up a conversation of two. That is if one of the two is a slimy pushy sales person and the other person needs to be rescued. If that is the case, go right ahead.
Don’t Only Talk to The People You Already Know
I am not a natural at networking and I tend to stick to people I already know instead of moving out of my comfort zone. So I set this as a goal for every network meeting: Do not only hangout with people you know!
My problem is that it feels uncomfortable to me to end the conversation and move on to someone else, I do not want to be rude.
Apart from the bathroom trick, getting a drink/snack trick, and “I have to ask him/her something trick”, I learned two different ways of closing the conversation.
“I really enjoyed talking to you and there are some more people I would like to meet. Here is my business card, let’s continue our conversation over a cup of coffee.”
If the conversation wasn’t that interesting you can, of course, leave out the second sentence.
“It was great meeting you. Is there someone I can introduce you to?” Or turn it around and say: “It was great meeting you, could you maybe introduce me to someone I haven’t met yet?“.
There is a school of thought in networking that says that you should never talk to people you have already met before. If you want to continue talking to them, set up an appointment. I do not agree with that. Sometimes building a relationship with people can be done in the setting of a network meeting, instead of a formal meeting. It is also more efficient to talk during network meetings than to set up individual appointments.
If you are networking in an international environment, please be aware of differences between cultures. Do not take any offense if someone does things differently from what you are used to. Just ask them how certain things are done in their culture. Be open and honest. Curiosity only killed the cat.
Everyone Has an Interesting Story
Of course, there are always people at events who only deem the speaker/organizer/presenter etc. important enough and worthy of their interest.
The other attendees are seldom interesting enough in their opinion and are easily ignored. And this isn’t necessarily bad because it means that they have selected themselves as people you do not want to network with. They will not pay it forward, they are only there for themselves.
The other side of the coin is that everyone has an interesting story if you are willing to put in the effort to ask the right questions.
You Never Know How a Cow Will Catch a Hare
In Dutch, we have an expression that roughly translated goes something like: “You never know how a cow will catch a hare”. In English you would say something like: “You never know your luck”.
It is my favorite saying when it comes to networking as it symbolizes the chance factor in networking. You never know what is hiding behind the façade because everyone has an interesting story. Everyone can use help with stuff and everyone can give help in some way. It is during great conversations that you catch that hare and find out a coincidental commonality.
Just an example. Recently I and some other people were talking to an English business owner I met for the very first time who at one point asked if anyone knew someone in the cosmetics business. She had a lawyer friend who wanted to start up a business in camouflage cosmetics and needed some help. Five months earñoer I had met this Dutch lawyer who started up her own skincare line. They have now been introduced to each other.
Another example. Twenty years ago I applied for a job with an American computer hardware company. For my second interview, I had to go to Germany on a Monday and meet with the VP Europe, VP Human Resources, and the VP Marketing. On Friday, I received an email asking for three references for the job. Just new on email, I had the good fortune of having the email of my American roommate from my Dutch university and I asked her if she could write one of the recommendations. As it happened she was technical director at a business that was one of the company’s two national distributors. My roommate asked her boss to write the recommendation, and after the VP Europe asked me how I got the owner of their biggest partner to recommend me, the job was mine.
You Can Network Everywhere And With Anyone
As a result of the cow and the hare rule, it becomes obvious that you can network everywhere and with everyone. You can network during a sports event, or when in line at the baker, on a plane, or when on vacation. And everyone has an interesting story if you care enough to ask the right questions and listen.
If you have been networking, be it at your grocery store or at an official networking event, follow up!
I am always gob smacked by how many people do not follow up. They offer to help you but do not deliver on their promise. You had a great conversation, but they did not connect with you on LinkedIn. They asked for your business card, but you never heard from them again.
In preparing for an event, I also schedule the time to follow up. Sometimes it consists of connecting with people on LinkedIn. Sometimes it is following up with information I promised. In the heat of things and a full mailbox, it sometimes may take me longer than I want, but I always follow up.
Even if no action was specifically talked about, I try and reach out to people and tell them that I enjoyed meeting them and thank them for their time.
If you do not follow up, you may as well not go to the networking event to begin with.
Don’t Spam The Guest List
If you are fortunate enough to have a guest list available for a networking event, do not spam the people on that list. No one likes a spammer!
This also means that you cannot add the people on the guest list to your MailChimp or any other email marketing account. That is spam as well.
It may be tempting, but it is not a good idea. Use the guest list to follow up with those people you talked to but who didn’t have their business cards with them. Or use it to get in touch with those people you didn’t have a chance to meet. Always make it personal and always make it relevant.
Lessons you want to share? Please do so in the comments.
By Pepita Bos