As a freelancer, advertising and marketing campaigns aren’t always affordable, accessible, or appropriate for your industry. So how do you get your information out there and snag some of that “word of mouth” all the kids are talking about these days?
Fortunately, the answer can be found in a single word. Unfortunately, that single word elicits disgust and terror from the guts of many a small business owner. What’s the word of the day, then?
It shouldn’t be terrifying… in fact, the word itself is fairly broad and fuzzy in detail.
Networking is simply the act of making yourself and your business known by finding creative ways to interact with industry peers.
Over the years, however, networking has gained a pretty bad rap. Images of sleazy salesmen in polyester suits come to mind, and one thinks, “That’s not me! That’s not how I do business! I can’t even wear polyester without breaking out in hives!”
We get that, but learning how to network effectively doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can, in fact, be one of the most effective (and inexpensive) career-boosting tools at your disposal. To better illustrate this, why don’t we change “networking” into something a little more pleasant… a little more hopeful… something like a first date.
1. Embrace the nerves.
You know those pre-date jitters, right? The ones that make you want to dance around the room and throw up all at the same time? As nerve-wracking as that feeling can be, it’s a good one.
2. Evaluate your goals.
Before you dive head-first into a date, it’s important to think about what you want out of it. Do you simply want to start a new friendship and see where it goes? Or are you ready to jump into a lifelong commitment as soon as the appetizers arrive?
Knowing your intentions will dictate the kinds of conversations you’ll have, and those conversations will, hopefully, put you closer in proximity to your goals.
Networking is no different.
Are you interested in getting to know the people in your industry, or would you like to come out of this event with serious leads on future partnerships? Either goal is perfectly fine, but you’ve got to know what you want in order to ask the right questions.
3. Do a little research.
One way to beat those nerves down to a manageable level is to research your networking event prior to attending. Conferences often list the scheduled speakers, and some even show the registered attendees. If the gathering is on a smaller scale, check to see if there’s a group or event created on social media so you can see who has joined. Now, how does this tie in with that handy date analogy? It’s a good idea to learn a little about someone, but it’s not a good idea to be a creeper about it.
Knowing that your new contact has a dog… that’s okay. Pet selfies as profile pictures are not uncommon. Knowing which dog park he or she takes said dog to at 7 pm on Tuesday nights? Nope. Why and how do you know that?
Finding out from a mutual friend that your date likes roses can have the same effect as learning which style a fellow graphic designer specializes in: they’ll appreciate that you took an interest, and won’t secretly be wondering how much more you might know about them.
4. Show up with the intention to connect rather than collect.
What is the ultimate goal of a first date? Well, if you’re in this for a long-term relationship that’s beneficial for both parties, then the ultimate goal should be to make a connection. The best relationships in both business and life in general are those that last for years, providing high-quality payoffs along the way. If you think networking skills are only for scoring business cards and new gigs, you won’t be successful… not in the long run, anyway.
5. Keep the mindset that everyone has value.
Regardless of their gender, personality, or profession, there is something you can learn from anyone you’re interacting with.Whether it’s a date or an industry-specific conference, believing that you’re fully superior to anyone will deprive you of an educational experience. Maybe your date will teach you how to pair wine with spaghetti, and maybe that marketing specialist can teach you how to promote your posts on Facebook. Either way, showing genuine interest in another person’s skills and opinions will be appreciated and remembered. Most of all, it can enrich your career.
6. Listen attentively.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but in our current days of abundant personal devices, distraction is incredibly common. Looking your date/new freelance comrade in the eyes and retaining the information they relate to you will be a refreshing change, and can save you from uncomfortable situations in the future. Asking someone if they enjoy hunting after being told they work for PETA can be just as catastrophic as offering your date a crab Rangoon after they’ve just told you they’re deathly allergic to wonton wrappers. You’ve got to pay attention.
7. Ask questions.
It’s simple: a meaningful connection, whether made across a conference table or over a basket of breadsticks, cannot be one-sided.
Learn about the person you’re talking to by asking thoughtful questions. Not only will this help your nerves by moving the focus off of you, it will also help you decide whether or not you’d like to deepen this connection in the future.
A handful of go-to questions can be helpful to have prepared beforehand, such as:
Sample Networking Questions
Networking Question #1How did you get involved in your line of work?
Networking Question #2What was the strangest/funniest incident you’ve experienced with a client?
Networking Question #3What significant changes have you seen take place in your industry over the past few years?
Networking Question #4What do you think are the coming trends?
Networking Question #5How have you been most successful in promoting your business?
The beauty of these questions is that they are open-ended, and usually effective in thwarting yes-or-no answers. This is a fantastic way to avoid an uncomfortable lull in conversation and collect memorable insight into this new connection.
8. Initiate introductions.
If you run into someone familiar, initiate an introduction. If it’s on a date, your new companion will appreciate being included in this small part of your life, and if it’s in a networking setting, your peers will appreciate the new connection.
9. Follow up.
For some reason, this seems to be the hardest part of networking and dating. Should you call? Send an email? Are you going to look too desperate if you call them too quickly? What if they don’t want to hear from you?
So many questions.
The fact is that one call or email to let a person know you enjoyed meeting them is not going to be a deal-breaker. In fact, so few people actually follow up on their networking connections that it will probably come as a nice surprise. There’s nothing to lose in asking to meet up for a cup of coffee or saying that you appreciated meeting someone, and there’s plenty to gain.
Similarly, it’s important not to lie when you meet someone you’re not terribly fond of. Remember to treat them as a valuable person, but don’t tell them you’d like to meet up in the future if you have no intention of doing so. Using social media platforms such as Twitter or LinkedIn is a fantastic way to stay connected with networking acquaintances without promising commitment. Integrity (and lack thereof) does not go unnoticed, so make sure to uphold yours.
10. Have fun and be authentic.
We totally understand that you’re nervous. Spending time with someone new can bring insecurities to the surface and cause you to second-guess yourself. You’ve got to remember that plenty of people are going to be just as jittery as you, and that you’ve got to power through it, even if all you can muster at first is a smile. As simple as it seems, a smile can also be a powerful networking tool. In an unfamiliar room (or at an unfamiliar cloth-covered table for two) even a tiny nervous smile stands out.
It also helps to simply be yourself. Being anything but authentic will only come around to hurt you in the long run. By presenting ideas and beliefs that you can stand behind in the future, you’ll be able to stay true to your brand and avoid working on projects you don’t feel good about.
Networking skills are an essential and irreplaceable asset to any entrepreneur.
Imagine going on a date in which the person across the table says nothing except for “Uh huh,” and “Oh, cool!” while you fill up the awkward, garlic-bread-filled silences with nervous chatter. Was there really any point in either of you showing up?
It’s no different at a networking event; who wants to be the one doing all the talking?
Building a network happens more quickly if you can put forth a genuine effort to connect.
“If you build it, he will come,” is a mentality that only works in 80s baseball movies—you’ve got to get away from your desk and put yourself out there, even if it makes you nauseous.
All you need is a little preparation beforehand, which will provide you with the tools you need to hold up your end of the conversation and turn “networking” from a dirty word into a sweet nothing.
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