22 April 2016
Love it or hate it, everyone has some sort of opinion on networking. And let’s be honest, it can seem like a daunting task, especially if you are attending a conference filled with events, seminars and after-hour meetups. One such conference is Collision, the fastest growing tech conference in America, where 10,000 attendees will descend on New Orleans starting this Monday, April 25th.
So how can we break down this oftentimes daunting task of “networking”? What’s the point, and how should one approach it?
I want to start with three responses, when faced with the task of networking, that I hear all the time from the business owners and entrepreneurs I work with on a daily basis.
1. “I don’t have time”
We all have tasks that we must complete on a daily or weekly basis to keep our businesses and lives up and running. To allocate some of your precious time to an informal meetup or luncheon with undefined returns might seem like a luxury you can’t afford. But the tyranny of the immediacy has its downfalls, one of which is a lack of long-term strategy. Saying you don’t have time to focus on building relationships because of day-to-day responsibilities is akin to saying you don’t have time to think about the future because you’re too focused on the present. As Ibarra and Hunter wrote in their 2007 paper on what makes effective leaders, “exchanges and interactions with a diverse array of current and potential stakeholders are not distractions from “real work” but are actually at the heart of …leadership roles.” Allocate your energy to high-impact activities: prioritize, delegate, and make time to build your network.
2. Networking is sleazy
If you feel like this, you’re not alone. Even the phrase “find me on LinkedIn” could set off those negative associations, as noted in a 2014 study in Administrative Science Quarterly.  For individuals making their first entrance into the business realm— a chef opening a bakery or an academic bringing an invention to market— the prospect of a “networking breakfast” can sound self-promotional and even disingenuous. But at the end of the day you are in control of the level of authenticity that is contained in your interactions. Work to get to know people — dig a little bit beyond the typical surface level questions. And if you sincerely have something to offer, you shouldn’t feel sleazy letting other people know about it.
3. It’s only for extroverts
The prospect of a room of strangers can be overwhelming to even the most social of butterflies, even more so for individuals who are more introverted. But if you don’t view networking as “small talk” or “putting yourself out there” but rather as an opportunity to learn a little more about other people and organizations, it can start to feel less intimidating and more about education. Set a goal for number of people to talk to, ask a lot of questions, and don’t forget to smile.
So if you do decide to take the plunge and attend a networking event, what are some strategies? How does one go about networking in a way that is efficient, effective, and maybe even enjoyable?
Here are seven tips that I think will put you on the path to success:
1. Define Your Target
Know what type of person you are looking to make a connection with. In the case of Collision, you can view the list of attendees and proactively reach out to attendees you are hoping to engage with.
2. Nail Your Pitch
Every time someone asks, “what do you do” is a marketing moment. Practice concisely explaining what you do and the value you or your organization adds.
3. Bring a Wing (Wo)man
It’s great to have the support of a friend or colleague when attending an event, but don’t spend all your time together. Arrive together and plan to work the room separately, taking full advantage of the potential connections you will make.
4. Talk to the Person in the Corner.
If you feel uncomfortable or out of place at a networking opportunity, chances are there is someone who feels even more uncomfortable. Talk to them, they may end up being the best connection you make.
5. Be a Good Listener
If you spend the whole time talking about yourself the other person will feel like just another name on your list of contacts to “network.” Lead with questions, and actually respond to what they are saying— people will notice.
6. 5 Minute-Rule (Give before you take)
If you can help someone, and it will only take five minutes, just do it. Things that may seem inconsequential to you could prove hugely important to someone else. And you will have established a relationship where they are going to be a valuable part of your network going forward.
7. Exit strategically
Don’t be the first to arrive or the last to leave the event. Leave each conversation with a definitive next step, whether it’s establishing who will reach out via email, or setting a coffee meeting the following week. There’s no point in collecting dozens of business cards if they’ll just sit around your office until they are eventually thrown out.
So whether you are going to be at Collision (if the tickets seem expensive sign up here to volunteer), or find yourself wondering what you can do to help build resources dedicated to the long-term growth of your organization, try some network building using the seven steps above. Prepare a pitch, be genuine, and who knows, you might even have a little bit of fun.