A Networking Guide

Successful Networking in the Digital Age

By Chris Allen 

Since we live in a digital world dominated by social media, it may be tempting to think face-to-face networking doesn’t matter anymore. This notion may appeal particularly to people who prefer to avoid networking.

Business and sales depend on relationship building. Since we can all access reliable information about any product or service at our fingertips, how do we decide what to buy or who to hire? If you’re like me, when you need a new primary care doctor, auto mechanic or hairdresser, you typically ask a friend or family member for a recommendation. Forming trusting relationships with others is a way businesses have always won customers. If anything, that’s even truer today.

Given that networking remains highly valuable, how do we get better at it? Even folks who love networking (there are some!) don’t necessarily network as well as they could.

The bottom line: we can all improve our networking skills.

Tips for More Successful Networking

1) Find a few good places or groups for regular networking, rather than attend occasional events. It takes time to build relationships. It’s more helpful to see the same people at a monthly networking event, be it a business organization or a women’s business group, than to meet people at one-off opportunities.

The more someone gets to know you, understand you and learn about your area of expertise and offerings, the more likely they are to give you referrals or business leads. Trust takes time.

2) Prepare ahead of time. Spend some time on your appearance and “elevator speech,” and prep some interesting, open-ended questions to ask. When you feel good about how you look and are ready with initial and follow-up questions, you’ll feel more confident and be more likely to come across as comfortable with yourself.

3) Have at least ONE goal (however modest) in mind.

For example:
• I am going to meet five new people tonight.
• I will identify two people I can help.
• I will choose three people to follow up with after the meeting.
• I will practice breaking into groups rather than just chatting one-on-one.

When we have a specific goal in mind, it calms the brain, gives us something to focus on and provides a way to measure success. Research also shows we accomplish more when we set a goal.

4) Manage nervousness or anxiety strategically. Go with a friend, as long as you agree to split up on arrival and check in with each other only briefly or after the event. With someone else you know there, you may feel more confident.

Other strategies for anxiety include reminding yourself why you’re doing this. Train yourself to interpret increased heart rate and butterflies in the stomach as positive. When we use a mindset about our purpose, we are more likely to experience a “challenge” response in the body rather than a “threat” response to the stress. Reducing our stress response also makes it more likely we’ll try again, and practice is essential for skill-building.

5) Pay full attention to the person with whom you’re talking. Turn off devices so you aren’t distracted, and never glance over someone’s shoulder. Giving someone your undivided attention for a few minutes is good practice. Train yourself to focus and listen deeply.

6) Plan strategies to break off conversations and do so frequently. This becomes easier with practice. Having prepared exit strategies will help this go more smoothly.

For example:
• “Thank you for speaking with me.”
• “I made a promise to myself I would meet five people, so I should circulate.”
• “Excuse me, I am going to get some food.”

Don’t say you will follow up unless you truly intend to do so, and don’t feel obligated to follow up with everyone you meet.

7) Bring a pen to note anything important, as well as a plan to follow up, on the back of business cards. This habit makes it more likely you will follow up after — which is important if you said you would.

8) Remember: Networking is about relationship-building, not about selling. We need to have the longer-term perspective on its value. People get turned off when we talk too much about ourselves and when we try to sell them something right away. Instead, actively think about how you could be helpful to the person you just met — what kinds of referrals do they need?

9) Develop a learning mindset. While practice doesn’t make perfect, it can definitely make better. We’re all learning. Track your progress. What was your goal? What was your key takeaway? Plan some reflection time. If you can ask anyone for feedback, that’s even better!

10) Be light and playful in your mindset about networking. When we’re too serious, we may try too hard, which interferes with performance and learning. We learn and grow best when we give ourselves permission to make mistakes and be human.

So get out there, network and have fun. Let me know how it goes! SWM

Chris Allen, a workplace psychologist and executive coach, is the president of Insight Business Works. For more information, visit insightbusinessworks.com. Contact Chris at [email protected]