Did you ever get a job interview simply because someone you knew recommended you? Did you ever close that incredible sale because you were referred by a friend? Did you ever raise money for your favorite charity? Whether you’re a Networking Newbie or you’re already at Networking Nirvana or anywhere in between there is but one inescapable fact – every time you’re meeting another individual, socially or for business, you’re already networking. Whether you scorn it, or take it lightheartedly chances are networking today probably forms a bigger part of your life than perhaps you once realized.
Networking is not an art form or an exact science, it can happen anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The question to ask is - do you embrace this opportunity with passion and maximize the possibility of mutual benefit or do you choose to let a potentially life changing opportunity pass you by? Some people view networking as all about inflating a person’s ego for selfish rewards. If you are of this mindset then you are likely to miss opportunities where perhaps you’ll be kicking yourself later on. Simply stated, networking is developing and maintaining valuable relationships. My definition of networking is making friends, establishing contacts, developing relationships, and being resourceful to others but before you need them. Mutual benefit here is the key. The quicker you can establish a benefit to others that they can appreciate, the more likely they will be able to reciprocate in terms of advice and help in the future. The intangible exchange of ideas, skills, time, laughter and simply being there for someone can form the basis of powerful future friendships and should not be underestimated. You reap what you sow: this has never been more true than when networking.
So, how do you network effectively? Sometimes the greatest rewards from networking come when you take yourself out of your comfort zone and interact with a new person you may have otherwise ignored or been afraid to approach. For example, at a recent social event I approached someone I hadn’t met before and as I extended my hand to shake his, he kept his hand down and did not shake mine. This could have been an embarrassing moment had I not been aware of the business or social networking etiquette rules. I remembered that I needed to know how to present myself favorably, gracefully and with composure. I slowly lowered my extended hand without a blink or calling attention to it. I thought to myself, “Ok, so how can I warm this unsmiling cold fish into exchanging a productive dialogue with me?” I simply maintained my composure and this led me into the next step of introducing myself and asking him, “How are you?” He replied back in a bland, monotone voice, “Fine thank you.” At this point I noticed he was wearing a flower in the lapel of his jacket. So I asked him about it. I had succeeded in finding something neutral about him with which to break the ice. Suddenly this cold fish exchanged an amazing story of how he was celebrating 40 years of marriage that week and how he had decided to wear a fresh flower every day of that week to celebrate. By warming to his openness and offering him the opportunity to talk about himself, he was able to share with me a dialogue I would never otherwise have had.
So this makes me wonder if when you are asked “How are you?” how do you respond? Do people really want to hear the reply “Fine, thank you.” Look at yourself and ask if you’re answering the question authentically. If you were not fine, could you say why? If you were happy and full of enthusiasm could you reply with a positive tone of voice such as, “Thanks for asking, I feel great today because I worked out all week and rewarded myself with a chocolate milkshake. How about you? How are you?” However you answer the question you may find being genuine, offering enthusiasm and optimism are contagious and will most probably be reciprocated. By being authentic and open you have just increased the quality of your interaction. Perhaps you have even opened the door to a future friendship…This is the art of small talk and this is the biggest talk we do and need to be comfortable with it. Small talk is vital to networking success because this allows you the opportunity to connect with others. However it is important to avoid gossiping about others, bragging or criticizing the world as you see it. Instead give a sincere compliment if it’s merited, ask questions and then listen. Don’t exclude your spouse or the person you came to the event with and be aware of the conversation, limiting work-related topics so that those you don’t work with and are present in the conversation can feel included.
Remember, you have the power to extend your sphere of influence over everyone you meet. When people get to know you, trust you and like you, they will want to keep in touch with you. We live in an instant world. Your first impression is made within seven seconds of meeting someone new. Within two to three minutes after that they will have made up their mind about whether to engage with you socially or professionally in the future. So simply be yourself and laugh at yourself if things go wrong. This is Networking Nirvana: being in the space where you see opportunities for mutual growth all around you, not being afraid of making mistakes, and engaging without fear and a sense of fun! By embracing networking and actually enjoying it, you will have empowered yourself and perhaps even gained far more than you can possibly imagine!