Networking. That dreaded word that many freelancers loathe. It brings up images of dreary events, cold buffets and self-important people who want to talk endlessly about themselves. Are they that important? Well, frankly – yes, they are.
Because business is about people, ask anyone where they get most of their new business enquiries, and it's from people they know or word-of-mouth recommendations.
You have to actively build a network if you want to succeed in this game. You need contacts. There's no getting around it. (Yes, I'm talking to you introverts at the back – you can't avoid people!)
But how do you make the most of networking? How do you get people to like you? And how on earth do you leave the right impression? Don't fret! We've plucked a few words of wisdom from some of the world's leading entrepreneurs and innovators to help you become a networking ninja. Someone people will like, remember and – most importantly – recommend to others.
1. It isn't about you – it's about them
"You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."
– Dale Carnegie
Business is all about people. If people like and trust you, they'll throw work your way. How do you win their admiration? By being sincerely interested in them. That's it. That's the magic. Ask lots of questions, listen to what they say and respond accordingly.
It's not an opportunity to talk about yourself. By all means, if people want to know more about you, go for it! Just don't dominate the conversation and aim to swing it back to them. People will absolutely love you for being so interested in what they have to say.
Oh and – another top tip – say their name! Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, says it's the most magical sound in the world to them, so it will help you win their respect.
2. Forget business, focus on building friendships
"Pulling a good network together takes effort, sincerity and time."
– Alan Collins
You can't magically snap your fingers and build a network overnight. It takes time. So smile, be open and friendly, and focus on building relationships instead of selling your services. It's a long game. You're just concentrating on developing a valuable network — nothing more, nothing less.
Bide your time. Because if you make good friends in the local business community, you'll almost certainly see the benefits in future. After all, you'd do anything for someone you like.
How do you build friendships? Like you do in your personal life. When you meet someone at an event, follow things up with a friendly email or send them a small gift in the post. Just a tiny amount of effort will make people feel special, and I tell you what – they'll never forget your generosity.
3. Listen and learn
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply."
– Stephen Covey
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was right. Most people are just waiting for when it's their time to talk. They don't listen to what others are saying; they're merely searching for opportunities to switch the focus on them.
Sound familiar? Think you've been guilty of this behaviour? Hey, we all do it. The key is to become more self-aware and concentrate on ditching the ego to become a better listener instead.
Yes, most people will talk about themselves. Yes, you'll sometimes think "why the hell isn't anyone listening to me?" Yes, you'll often feel bitter that everyone seems to be so god damned selfish and self-focused. (Hey – most people sadly are.) It doesn't matter. The critical thing to remember is that if you're breaking the mould and listening to everyone else, you'll not only make friends and rub their egos; you might also learn something.
That's right. By listening, you'll learn things and develop your skills. People are interesting, and they have a lot of wisdom to share. If you start conversations with the right mindset, i.e. to listen to the other person, and treat the experience as an opportunity to discover something new. My friends, listen and learn – it will change your world.
4. You have to give before you take
"The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity."
– Keith Ferrazzi
Is there anything more annoying than take, take, takers? The kind of folk who want to see what value you can offer. We've all been there. We're chatting away, and the other person initially shows interest, but when they realise you're not useful to them, their eyes glaze over, and attention fades. How rude!
Don't be that dick. Focus on the other person, ask lots of questions and be genuinely interested in what they have to say – even if they're not helpful to you (that might change in future). Offer friendly advice or share a useful contact. Be generous, and you'll reap the rewards.
5. Never expect anything in return
"The successful networkers I know, the ones receiving tonnes of referrals and feeling truly happy about themselves, continually put the other person’s needs ahead of their own."
– Bob Burg
With the above in mind, you should also give without expecting anything in return. You have to accept that your generosity may never be matched. And that's fine. This isn't about what people owe you; it's about building relationships.
I especially love this quote from Samuel Johnson: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good."
Let someone tell their story without feeling the need to share your own. Give your full attention to others, even when you find your mind wandering. Assume the best in people and give them the benefit of the doubt. Share some valuable wisdom, even if you're giving tips to your competition.
By being generous without expectation, you will develop a tremendous local network and become someone people value and respect.
6. Sell yourself without selling
"Try not to become a man of success. Rather become a man of value."
– Albert Einstein
Taking inspiration from the man who developed the theory of relativity, you can only really sell yourself by becoming someone of value. What are you passionate about? What makes your eyes sparkle with curiosity? What valuable things can you share with the world?
You can only really become successful, exciting and someone people want to do business with if you apply yourself and develop your skills and experience. Devour books, read up on things you're not sure about, go to museums, ask questions, be curious.
And then you'll be selling yourself at these networking events, without saying anything about your business. This is about you. Don't focus on work and what you've got to sell; concentrate on becoming an interesting, valuable person that people enjoy chatting to. You'll have them eating out of the palm of your hand.