How to get to love networking

By Neil Patrick

I always hated networking.

All those awkward conversations with strangers thinking, “I hope this is over soon and I can go and do some real work”.

But today I have completely changed my attitude. I network all the time and without it, I’d never achieve anything in my work.

Networking isn’t optional, or a chore, it’s a joy because I learned to change how I think about it entirely. And if you dread networking, or feel awkward, I hope these tips will get you out of the pain zone and into the gain zone.

Rather than thinking of networking as an "event", consider it an ongoing, lifelong process of building new relationships with people you actually like and want to be connected to.

Being a good networker gains you control of your life in ways which many people just don’t appreciate. I realised after many years of getting it wrong that networking means I can choose who I develop relationships with. And by the same token I can get away from those who for any reason I don’t like.

So lets’ get on with the eight tips that changed my whole experience of networking.

1. Focus on giving not getting

Golden rule number one, is that you are not there to get things from others. You are there to try and find out more about them and see if you can get along. Showing an interest in them makes it easier for others to talk to you. After all most people love talking about themselves. People do business with people they like, so let them do it. Relationships don’t materialise in a few minutes. They mature over time. Usually months or even years. So approach networking as a fact finding mission. Ask questions, be friendly and likeable and offer to help people out anyway you can. Never ask for anything from them in return.

2. Be visible

This was always a big problem for me. I always had a desk full of urgent things that I needed to get done. I thought that every networking event was robbing me of precious hours that I needed to do my real work.

But today there’s a great solution. I don’t go to many physical events. I probably do 80% of my networking from my desk. I connect with people on Twitter and Linkedin. But I also move dialogues offline as soon as possible. I Skype with people and we exchange emails.

This has a couple of huge advantages. First my network is global so I can connect with a lot of people, I’d never meet in the real world. And since I live in a forest in Wales, I’m not exactly surrounded by movers and shakers in business. Second, this is much more time efficient. There are no long drives to venues. No protracted schedules. I just fit things into my schedule when it suits me and save the face to face meetings for the times when the real business is being done.

3. Listen more than you talk

There’s a very old saying attributed to Greek philosopher Epictetus which goes something like “I have two ears and one mouth and I use them in that proportion”. This is great news if like me you tend to introversion. It has the great benefit that provided you ask good questions, the other person will do all the work AND you’ll be perceived as more empathetic and interested in others. Both great foundations for a good relationship in the future.

4. Think long term vs. short term

Relationships don’t just magically happen. They take time. Trust is earned slowly and consequently many people just don’t have the patience to nurture business relationships over time. But just as you can pick up instantly again with an old friend you’ve maybe not spoken to for six months, you can do the same with business relationships…provided you’ve already followed the first three points above. Moreover, I find that people I’ve maybe not had contact with for several months are often more pleased to hear from me than if we’d been in more regular contact.

5. Don't over commit or feel guilty

Never promise to do something you have doubts about delivering. This is serious trust-melter. But if you don’t have to the desire or capability to deliver what someone is asking for, you don’t have to give them a blunt refusal. Just tell them that your schedule won’t allow you to do what they’d like. This has the bonus of letting them know in a kind way that you are in demand and it may well prompt them to reconsider their request and reframe it in a way which makes it more palatable or attractive for you. Likewise, meeting someone does not commit you to keeping in touch. Never feel obligated to keep up a contact if for any reason, you feel it’s not right for you.

6. Be honest

Tell the truth. Always. If someone asks you if you know about something, don’t be tempted to say “yes” just to avoid feeling dumb. No-one expects anyone to know everything. And if I don’t know an answer to a question, I am quite upfront and say, “I don’t know”….often followed by something like, “But that’s a really interesting question, I’ll find out and get back to you”. And I always keep that promise. Not knowing something isn’t a problem – it’s an opportunity to learn and prove your worth and reliability to someone else.

7. Take action immediately

Everyone is busy these days. So look for ways to execute tasks immediately, rather than adding another job to your to do list. For example, just the other day I was on a Skype call and the other person said, “Oh you really should connect with my friend, you two would really have lots to talk about.” I agreed and the introduction was made via Twitter. In about 30 seconds flat! And it was true we did have a lot to talk about and have already scheduled a face to face meeting to do just that.

8. Only go to things that excite you

If you have a choice, don’t ever go to things that you think you should attend, just because of who else will be there. If the event doesn’t ignite your passion, you’ll not be on your top form and the event will sap you of the energy and spark you need to make a positive impression on others. In fact I have taken this mantra one step further and created my own local networking event with a couple of business friends. We all agreed there would be no agenda, no speakers, no rules. But it would be exclusive. Exclusive in as much as we’d only invite people we thought could add value and even more importantly that we liked and who we thought would welcome an informal business environment.

I used to hate networking, but today, I spend more time doing it than ever before. And it’s a genuine pleasure because I apply these rules. If you hate networking I hope they help you too.

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