I was a painfully shy wallflower as a child, and it took me until my late 20s to grow a spine and find my voice.
Once I did, whoa Nelly. I was loud and proud in the crowd. When I got lubed up with alcohol, I bordered on obnoxious. Fortunately, those two extremes are long behind me.
Today, I’m outgoing and friendly, but I don’t feel the need to be the center of attention. I’m totally comfortable striking up conversations with strangers, but if you’re not interested in chatting, I don’t take offense and move along. All of this adds up to make me a first-rate business and social networker.
Good thing, too, since my freelance writing and media consulting business is all referral based. WHO I know has proven to be as important and WHAT I know in my first year as an entrepreneur. Truth.
I was chatting with a friend recently, the always affable John Zeydel, who is known around town as a master networker in his own right. He has been hosting No Rules Networking and similar events for the better part of 10 years, maybe longer.
During a recent NRN, John was telling me that he has come to realize just how many people don’t know how to network. Like, at all. That surprised me a little, but it makes sense.
I take my own aptitude at it for granted because I have been doing it for so long. It comes easy now, but it didn’t always.
My conversation with John got me to thinking about my first foray into networking when I was on staff at Business First in the early 2000s. The publisher, Tom Monahan, decided to host a series of free, breakfast events in which the newspaper and a partner sponsor invited the Louisville community to meet the news staff.
He didn’t give us (the aforementioned news staff), any choice in the matter. So, basically, I was forced to network against my will at the ass crack of dawn.
My colleagues and I hated every second of it and bitched amongst ourselves for the entire two hours we were forced to stand around and make nice with our guests. OK, not really. We all acted like professionals in public, but in private we commiserated, mostly about the early hour and how the time away from work negatively impacted our workload.
But, much to our chagrin, it turns out that Tom was onto something. Those events, which I now attend regularly as a guest, are still held all around Louisville, alternating morning and evening time slots (thankyoubabyJesus), and drawing upwards of a thousand people. Collectively, I bet the news staff has garnered hundreds of story tips out of them over the years, simply from showing up. I have to admit that it’s a genius concept.
One huge gift those events imparted to me was that they got me accustomed to networking — with very little effort required on my part. Wearing a Business First nametag was pure friggin’ gold. I did not have to seek out contacts and conversation — they came to me, for obvious reasons. I just stood there and tried not too look as terrified as I was.
After a while, though, I noticed that the business professionals in attendance felt even more awkward than I did, so I slowly started to reach out to them with a pleasant, “How’s business?” (That one, simple question is still instrumental in all of my networking efforts to this day.)
Later, when I left the paper and began exploring other networking groups and events, I found that I had a comfort level in a crowd of strangers that surprised me. All that practice I gained at BF, albeit mandated, continues to pay off in a major way.
I also realized that, no matter what job or company I was promoting, I was really good at honing my elevator speech. It’s a fact that being able to succinctly explain what you do is essential to spurring further conversation.
My rule of thumb is to assume the person you are talking with has no clue about your industry, company or job title, and go from there. (Most of the time, they don’t.) You also have to get used to saying it over and over, and over and over. And over again. (Drink lots of water, or you will be parched by the end.)
The true key to minimizing your apprehension as a networking newbie is to understand that everyone is there for the same reason, and they ALL share your fears. Ten times out of 10 at an event dedicated to networking, you can walk up to someone, introduce yourself, and that person will welcome you into conversation. In the extremely rare instance you get snubbed or rejected, just shake it off and move on … because you probably didn’t want to do business with that asshole anyway.
As for finding events, there are a gazillion groups to try. Chambers of commerce, business associations, entrepreneurial and industry groups … the list is endless. I am a member of the J-town Chamber, Highland Commerce Guild and the Louisville chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists and American Advertising Federation.
I have also attended two different Business Networking International (BNI) groups, Women In Networking, President’s Club, Venture Connectors, the Association for Corporate Growth, Louisville Independent Business Alliance, Greater Louisville Outstanding Women, St. Matthews Chamber of Commerce and a ton of others I can’t remember.
My buddy John puts on several different, no-cost events each month in addition to his No Rules Networking. Others open to the public and free (or nearly free) I like are Louisville Masterminds, Network After Work and the GLI/Business First Wake Up, Wind Down series (the newest iteration of my old standby).
One great way to find out about other networking opportunities is to ask people you meet at the events you already attend. I almost always come away with an idea of a new group to try just by casually saying, "So hey, where else do you get leads?" And many times, the kind soul who puts me in the know about new groups also invites me to attend as their guest. (Bada bing, I already know one person at the next event! See how I did that??)
Fortunately, because I do so much networking and already know a ton of people in my hometown’s business community, I usually can spot a few familiar people at whatever events I choose to attend. It’s so nice to find a friendly face, then use that conversation as a jumping off point to introduce myself to others in the immediate vicinity. Once you start going to events regularly, you'll start to develop a "network" (imagine that), and see a lot of the same people everywhere you go. Find some groups you like and be consistent.
That brings me to to an important lesson I had to learn early on: Don’t go into any event expecting to make a sale. Sometimes you will, but that’s not the norm. You are there to start building relationships that will eventually lead to sales.
Please, for the love of God, don’t act desperate and push your product or service too hard. That’s a huge turnoff. Sell yourself as a helpful person, and that will lead to monetary sales. Promise, cross my heart.
So… for anyone who wants to get started networking, give me a buzz. I am happy to be your friendly face in a crowd and introduce you to some great people I know. Or check out www.nrnetworking.com. John’s free, monthly events are a great way to get your feet wet.
Really, though, it’s doesn’t matter how you start. Just slap a smile on your face, be authentic, get out there and work it!
Hope to see you soon!
About Amy Higgs
A former newspaper columnist, Amy takes her random, slice-of-life stories to the web. After 10 years, she's still just saying.