The Art of Business Networking

I strongly believe that success and happiness in life is highly correlated to mastery of interpersonal and communication skills. What we achieve is dependent on how well we can convince others that we are worthy of what we are asking for.

Situations vary. You may be telling a loved one to go out tonight instead of watching a movie at home or you may be asking your boss for a raise. Your persuasion and conflict resolution skills are constantly put to test – even without you realizing that.

There are 3 such situations which everyone has to face sometime in our career, yet most of us dread those, and find particularly tough to handle. No matter how many times you have tackled those, they are bound to make you nervous the next time they come across. I want to discuss these 3 situations in a series of 3 blog posts starting today.

1. Business networking events
2. Resolve a conflict with a colleague
3. Deal with a difficult boss

Fortunately, I learned how to handle these early on in my career through formal training in MBA, by experimenting in the leadership and communication learning lab called Toastmasters International, from the advice and guidance of my mentors, and then through the best way possible – by making mistakes and correcting those.

This series will be a compilation of my learning for you so that you do not have to make the same mistakes I did. I hope that the next time you come across one of these tricky situations you come out with flying colors.

Let’s get started!

Today’s tricky situation is a business networking event.

This is the most awkward situation I have ever come across. You think talking to a stranger at a party is difficult, wait until you are forced to do that at a business networking event. It is a nightmare! You are surrounded by people you do not know. Yet you are expected to convert a random introduction into a meaningful professional conversation. How do you do it?

Here is how:

1. Forget the traditional goals
Just before my first networking event, I was told to collect as many business cards I can. I did. What was the result? Nothing! Even after sending out formal thank you emails and ‘look forward to connecting on LinkedIn’ messages, I did not receive a single meeting or a job lead, neither was I motivated enough to keep in touch with any of them. But why am I not surprised at the outcome?

The expectation to develop a connection in a short conversation with a selfish goal in mind is simply unrealistic. You do not care about them. Neither to they care about you. But both of you care about each others’ business cards. Such strategy can get you pieces of paper but will not build you a network.

Forget such advice. Instead, at each networking event, try to find one or two people who you really connect with. It is not hard to find such people. Trust your gut during the first small talk. If it turns you off, politely but quickly move on to the next person. If you feel intrigued by the conversation, don’t feel pressurized to end it just because you have 10 more business cards to collect. Continue with the conversation and hopefully when you leave you are motivated enough to connect with them via LinkedIn or email or phone.

Susan Cain who speaks about introvert and extrovert tendencies has these 22 minutes of advice for introverts on how to network. She, too, mentions this strategy in the video. Do check it out.

2. Listen more than you speak
This is counter-intuitive but it works like a charm. In order to build a connection, you must be genuinely interested in the other person. You cannot fake it because human mind unconsciously picks up on that and hinders the connection.

So how will you know if you are indeed interested in the other person? Listen to what they have to say. Conversely, listening to others also signals to them that you are interested in them. They feel heard and valued, and in turn connected to you.

  1. Start with their name. Make sure you hear it right, and pronounce it right. If you do not understand it the first time they introduce, do ask again. Let them know you want to make sure you get it right. Once you do, weave it in the conversation a few times so that you remember it.
  2. Next, listen to their level of enthusiasm when they talk about a topic. What do they find interesting or exciting? Can you relate to them? Do you have a similar experience you can share later?
  3. Constantly, stay tuned to their interest in you. Are they becoming antsy? Do they want to talk to somebody else? That will show you their interest. Connection has to be mutual, it cannot be forced.

Believe it or not, by listening more and speaking less you are actually creating a new contact who cares about you. You have shown that you understand (as you should) that asking for a business favor such as a job lead, a client reference or an introduction is a privilege, not a right. You have now earned that privilege to ask for a favor when you do need it.

3. Be yourself
This one is a cliché but nowhere is it so hard to implement than in such a situation. You do not really know what kind of connections others are looking for yet you are under pressure of making the best impression. It is just like dating. Well, more like speed dating. The most reliable way to succeed is to look for a true connection. That is only possible if you truly reflect who you are.

Now being authentic by no means suggests bringing out all your flaws. That’s not necessary in the first conversation. But at least try to communicate to others what excites you, what does your ideal job or a client look like, what you see as your strengths. Other people are sure to have their expectations of what they are looking for. If you do match those, great! If you do not, that’s OK. There is something better out there for you.

If you fake your interests and goals, you may temporarily impress them but that will not last as long as you hope it would. So bring out your best self, and communicate so well with others that they accept you for who you are.
That will not only get you the right connections to add in your network but also lead you closer to your long term goals.

4. Dig the well before you become thirsty
This is the most important rule of networking. Start doing it before you need it. Building a professional network is not a destination. It is a journey. You cannot stop. Rarely would anybody let you in their circle because they met you for 10 minutes. You must nurture the connection and help them out first.

Help as many people in your network as you can. There is a great book written on this topic by Tim Sanders – “Love is the killer app”. Read it if you haven’t already.

Participate in a professional organizations or volunteer at a local community organization. Had it not been for my involvement in Toastmasters I would not have met a recruiting pro who critiqued and bettered my resume, an expert who gave me such great tips on interviewing that 80% of my interviews converted into job offers, and mentors which guide me in my public speaking career. So choose an organization of your choice and start building connections there.

I hope these strategies and resources help you develop your networking skills. Practice is the key. Start in a small setting. Anytime you have a chance of meeting a stranger, it is a networking opportunity. Treat it as such and practice your skills. It is only through practice that you will get better at it.

Learning labs like Toastmasters are wonderful for introverts and extroverts alike. The program is not focused on networking skills alone but communication and interpersonal skills. No need to say that as a result you start becoming better at every human interaction. Very helpful and highly recommended organization for any individual who cares about learning and growing.

Do you like, love or hate networking events? What is your secret to making it successful? Share the tips with the group. We all can learn from each other, and who knows maybe you will find somebody you really connect with through their comments. 🙂

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  • Manasi, great article. I liked all the points you mentioned about networking but the most important one is the ‘digging the well before getting thirsty’.
    Also, I have realized that people who are more open towards different cultures are better at networking (obviously because they can share similar interests). For instance, talking about football is a great way to initiate a conversation. However since I do not follow football it is very hard to pitch in.

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