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Sowing and Growing Your Network

By: Helen Wilkie

The N-word! We all know the value of networking and we feel we should be doing more of it. Unfortunately, for too many of us the very thought of attending an event where we have to mix and mingle with total strangers is enough to drive us into hiding until it's all over! What a pity we often force ourselves to go to a potentially great conference, but we're so busy worrying about the networking part that we forget to enjoy the event!

But networking is like so many other activities in life—it's easy when you know how. I call the process "Sowing and Growing Your Network" because it has two distinct, but equally important, parts.

Sowing Your Network

Over the years, people have often told me they don't "do" networking any more because it doesn't work. When I hear this, I know that person has committed at least one, and perhaps all three, of what I call the three cardinal sins of networking.

1.The first cardinal sin of networking is selling. Oh dear, is that what you thought it was all about? Well, although networking can be an integral part of the selling process, the two are distinctly different. Have you ever been circulating happily at a networking event (even at one of your own conferences or tradeshows), when suddenly someone has you backed into a corner trying to sell you mutual funds? That's the cardinal sin!

If you meet someone who seems to be a good prospect for your services, tell the person you have some information they might find useful and would like to meet or speak on the phone later to discuss it. If the person seems open to this, be sure to get their business card and make the call as arranged. That's the time to go into selling mode.

2.The second cardinal sin of networking is asking for or offering someone a job. Certainly, job hunting is another reason for active networking, but once again it's only part of the process. If you meet someone who seems a good candidate for a position you need to fill, follow the same process I've described above. If you begin discussing the job opportunity in detail, neither you nor the other person will have an opportunity to mix and meet others, which is the reason you are there.

If your new acquaintance seems to be in a position to offer you a job, this is definitely not the time to begin an in-depth job interview! Again, express your interest in talking later, get the card and make the call.

3.The third cardinal sin of networking is spending time speaking to the wrong people, which generally means the people you came with, or the people you see every day at work. Of course it's a lot easier to chat with friends than make conversation with strangers—but it's not networking.

I've seen too many people spend the valuable networking time at conferences with their friends, and then sitting with the same people at the education sessions and again at mealtimes. What a waste of opportunity!

If you are there to develop business contacts and you spend all the time with your friends, don't complain later that networking doesn't work!

Business cards

There is no excuse at all for attending a networking event without business cards, and yet people do it all the time. Excuses range from forgetfulness to new jobs and having left them in the car in the parking lot. If you tell people you forgot your cards, many will assume you are as lax in your business habits and you might lose opportunities. Even if you don't have your new cards yet, you can easily produce a temporary supply on your computer. When you give them to people you can mention that they are temporary and offer to send them your new one when you have it. That, of course, is a built-in reason to contact people again! A business card is an essential networking tool—make sure you have a supply with you at all times.

For many people, the most difficult aspect of a conference is speaking to people they don't know, and walking into a room full of strangers can certainly be intimidating. We've all stood inside the door looking at hundreds of people busily engaged in conversation, feeling as if everyone knows everyone else—except us! Here’s a secret: the only difference between you and all those others is that they arrived five minutes ahead of you and they have found one person to speak to! So how can you break into that buzz?

The refreshment line

No matter what time of day, there will be refreshments in some form. Most of us look around, find the food table and make a beeline for it while making sure we don't look around and meet anyone's eye on our way. Then we silently join the line, keeping our eyes trained strictly on the food and drink, while those on either side do the same thing. How ridiculous! This is your first opportunity to connect!

It doesn't take much imagination to begin a conversation. You might mention the state of your appetite, the scrumptious smell of the breakfast muffins or the fact that you really shouldn't ignore your diet but you will just for today. Whatever you say, the person you speak to will respond, giving you an opportunity to exchange names and keep chatting as you move along. By the time you reach the end of the table, you can move off into the crowd together. Guess what—you've just joined the buzz!

Breaking into conversation groups

One of the questions I'm most often asked during my networking workshops is about how to break into groups and join conversations in progress. To deal with this situation, you must master the fine art of "hovering". First, choose a group you'd like to join. Now, move towards the group, but stop a yard or so from the edge—just close enough for someone to see you there—and look interested in the conversation. Nod and smile as everyone else does, and before long someone will see you and invite you into the group.

What you do next is important. If someone is speaking, you don't want to be the cause of disruption. Simply say, "Don't stop your story, Stan—I'd like to hear the rest of it too." Then, when Stan is finished speaking, you can introduce yourself—and now you are part of the group! Wasn't that simple?

Moving on

I've seen people twist themselves into knots looking for an excuse to end a conversation and move on. They'll suddenly notice someone they've been frantically searching for, or they'll remember they absolutely must make a phone call—they'll even wave over the other person's shoulder to an imaginary acquaintance! Well here's a flash for you: you don't need an excuse to move on because that's the whole purpose of networking!

Say something like, "Well Janice, I've enjoyed meeting you and we should probably both move on and do some more mingling. I hope you enjoy the conference, and perhaps we'll meet up again later on." That's it. By giving her an opportunity to meet others too, you've removed any suggestion that you are abandoning her.

After the event—growing your network

It's vital that you make contact as soon as possible with everyone whose card you have. (Incidentally, that's why it's more important to get other people's cards than to give out yours.) I suggest you divide these cards into two groups: those you specifically want to contact for a purpose, and those you simply met.

For the second group, I recommend a quick note, possibly on a postcard, saying how pleased you were to meet them at the conference and you hope you will meet each other again one day. Mail these as soon as possible after the event, and then enter the information in your database.

For the first group, if you said you would call on Tuesday morning—make sure you call on Tuesday morning. Seems obvious, doesn't it? But most people don't do it, so you will stand out simply because you kept your word. At this point, you can move from networking mode into sales or job search mode, or whatever is appropriate.

Don't go to all the effort required to meet new people, and then throw away any potential opportunities by ignoring people afterwards. A network is a living, breathing organism. It should grow and change as you do, and if you look after it well, it will look after you for your whole life.

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