Craig and Tony, each a business owner, and I had lunch recently and the subject of much of our discussion was networking.
Craig started the conversation. He had been to a networking event the evening before where people stood around with a drink in one hand and nibbles in the other. It was a typical networking function. “The goal of each person was to introduce himself and his business to as many people as possible and leave a business card with each person he met,” Craig reported. Craig had come home with a stack of business cards that he had collected. He had also given out dozens of his own business cards.
Mission accomplished. Right? Craig had played this game hundreds of times before. And it was always the same. Occasionally, he would happen to meet someone who could use his services. But it was pretty rare for any real business to come out of these functions. Just like every other time, Craig left with a handful of business cards that he threw into his desk drawer when he got back to his office.
But this time, Craig was complaining. “I know networking works for some people.” But, for some reason, Craig said, “I just never seem to strike gold.”
Tony chimed in, “You’ve got the right analogy, Craig. Successful networking is like panning for gold.”
“How so?” Craig asked.
“If you want to be successful panning for gold,” Tony explained, “You must come prepared. You need the right tools. You have to sift out the gold nuggets from everything else you come across. And finally, you take your gold to the bank.”
I know what Tony means. Here’s how I break it down.
1. Arrive prepared. It’s a good idea to arrive with the “marketing mindset”. Look at every encounter as a potential opportunity. And by “opportunity”, I mean a chance for a meaningful connection that will be, at a minimum, a fun uplifting conversation that may, or may not, result in business for you. It is a mistake to look at every person you encounter as a “mark”.
Treat every person you meet with respect and interest. Seek meaningful connections with people and you will be well-received and memorable. “Be your genuine self and give more than you get” are good rules of thumb to follow even in your casual interactions with people.
2. Have the right tools.
- Business cards. Of course, you’re going to have an abundance of business cards to hand out once you’ve made a connection with someone who then asks you for it. I recommend you put a business-like and flattering photo of yourself prominently on it. A photo evokes more immediate thought and emotion from a viewer than plain text. Someone may not read the business cards on their desk after the event, but they will certainly see your photo and remember you.
- Name tag. Invest $10 in a metal or plastic permanent nametag that is large enough to read, not only your name, but also a statement or hint about what you do. I call this your personal “tagline”. Think of your nametag as an opportunity to put a “tagline” similar to what companies use. Your personal tagline could be the name of your company if it is descriptive of what you do. Or perhaps better yet, make it a hint or teaser description of what you do. “Entertainment Lawyer” is much more engaging than “Attorney at Smith, Jones and Carter, Attorneys at Law”. Make it funny or unusual and, above-all, attention-grabbing! “I can preserve your memory” would certainly pique interest if your business is transferring old photos and tapes to DVD. “I remove the pests in your life” if you work for a pest control company would very likely start some interesting conversations. You can have fun with this!
- Conversation starters. Your nametag can be a silent conversation starter. You don’t have to say a word. People who read your nametag won’t be able to keep from asking you about what you actually do! It’s also a great idea to arrive to a networking event prepared to open conversations about current events. Before you arrive, think of at least 3 topics of conversation you can talk about with just about anyone. It could be sports, a person in the news or an event that has, or will, affect people in your community. Having several conversation starters virtually obliterates any “butterflies” you might feel about meeting new people. You will never be without something interesting and valuable to say. Get this right, and you may be the most sought after person in the room!
- Snappy introduction. Spend some time before your next networking event coming up with at least one humorous, self-deprecating or intriguing way to introduce yourself and what you do. If you don’t put an intriguing personal “tag line” on your nametag, have a brief interesting statement at the ready when someone asks you “What do you do?” Be prepared to follow it up with a few brief, interesting points. Speak in “bullets”. People are able to remember short, pithy snippets of information rather than long, laborious desciptions. Keep it light and snappy and you will be memorable!
- Knowledge about the people you’ll meet. One of the most important ways to prepare for a networking event is to find out who will be at the event, then research a little about people you’d like to get to know. You’ll then be able to ask insightful, intelligent questions and offer pertinent thoughts of your own that will impress. Most importantly, your conversation will quickly rise above the level of idle chit chat. The purpose of small talk, after all, is to search for topics of mutual interest that are a starting point to a deeper, more meaningful exchange of ideas. Don’t get stuck in “small talk hell”! Come prepared with information about people that will help you connect more deeply more quickly!
3. Sift for the gold nuggets. It’s pointless to randomly pass out business cards to people. Making a connection is the key. And to make a connection, you’ll need to get someone’s attention, spark their interest in a topic of mutual interest and make a good impression. Having the right tools ahead of time helps you do that.
The Pareto Principle, the 80-20 rule that 20% of the people you connect with will account for 80% of your results applies in networking as it does in other areas.
Make sure you are spending your time with the people you need to meet who will give you the results you are looking for. Don’t let yourself get stuck in dead-end conversations or conversations that aren’t focused on making the meaningful connections you seek.
4. Take your gold to the bank. Once you’ve made the connections, you need to make sure the connections “stick”. This means follow up! In a few days, send a personal email or make a phone call. Just be sure to make it personal and not “sales-y”.
It’s always the personal connection you are after. Make building a genuine friendship first and always your primary goal. If you do that, your relationships with business acquaintances will not only reap you business, but also give you a rich and valuble circle of real friends who care about your success as well as their own.
Tony has it right. Networking is like panning for gold. Arrive prepared, with the right tools. Sift for the gold nuggets and then take your gold to the bank. And you will be rich in more ways than one!
Here are a couple of my favorite books on building relationships through networking.
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