‘Networking’ doesn’t seem to come easily to the British. We have a cultural distaste for anything that seems like self publicising or blowing our own trumpet. Even the word ‘networking’ is enough to send shivers up many peoples spines. It conjures a mental image of oily men in suits smarming their way round a room, boasting about themselves and insincerely showing interest in the other people only to get what they want. And having run networking events for the last five years I have certainly met some people who fit that description. But they’re not successful networkers. This stereotype of networking is in fact a picture of what not to do – if you ever find yourself doing any of it just stop! It wont get you anywhere and you’ll feel dirty afterwards.
So what is successful networking? The best description I’ve come across is having people say nice things about you behind your back. That is to say – having a large group of people who bring up your name in conversation and recommend you to their friends. There is no dark art to achieving this – it’s just about having friends. The best networkers of all are the people who don’t even know that’s what they’re doing. They’re just outgoing personable people who like making new friends. They meet people, take a genuine interest in them and keep in contact. They’re the kind of people who at the end of a party seem to have spoken to everyone and taken great pleasure in their company. Basically they’re outgoing people who are quick to like and be liked in return. Sadly however we’re not all so naturally gifted – and some of us need to work on it a bit more. So here are 6 basic pointers to networking:
1. Be helpful.
This is the most important thing to do. Helping other people is the surest way to have people want to help you. It doesn’t matter who the person is – the more people you help the better. Don’t approach it cynically, it’s not about only helping people you want something from. Try to take genuine pleasure helping others and they’ll take pleasure helping you in return.
2. Be interested.
Always find a genuine interest in the person you’re talking to. Try to learn their name and remember it. Ask them questions about what they are doing and try to find ways in which you could be useful to them in fulfilling their aims. If you genuinely don’t have anything in common with the person don’t pretend to be interested, insincerity is obvious a mile away, but try to think of someone who may be interested and make an introduction. They’ll be grateful for the contact and you can move on to a conversation you’re more interested in.
3. Be realistic.
Networking is not a quick fix. Don’t think you’ll turn up to one networking event and you’ll get what you want (be it a job, an audience, or whatever) you’ll only be disappointed. It isn’t as simple as do one person a favour and they’ll do you a favour in return. Networking isn’t about achieving specific goals from specific people. It’s a way of being – so over time you’ll acquire an extended group of people who you trust, who you share advice with, who you’d do favours for and call on when you needed a favour, who you’d recommend for jobs and be recommended by – basically a large professional friendship circle.
4. Be confident.
You are going to a networking event because you are passionate about what you do – don’t be embarrassed about that. Don’t worry if you’re at the start of your career – everyone has been there and no one will hold your lack of experience against you. Be open, be helpful and be interested in the people you meet and the vast majority will pay you the same compliment.
5. Keep in contact.
Always follow up contacts. The best way to do this is by giving them something they want. If you discussed something they were interested in, email them the next day with more information. If you know of an opportunity you think they may be interested in send them the details. Refer to the points above – be useful, be relevant and be realistic. If your contact is self serving – i.e you just send them your CV or ask for a job – expect to be disappointed. You’ve given them no reason to want to be helpful to you so why should they? The more people you can keep in contact with the better.
6. Business cards and flyers.
If you want people to stay in contact with you it’s very important that you make it as easy for them as possible. Always make sure you have lots of business cards with you when you go to a networking event. If they’re beautifully designed all the better but even if they’re home printed with nothing but your name, number and email they’re better than nothing. But be selective. This seems to be a particular problem for people working in theatre – I’m not sure if it’s too many bad promotion jobs handing out flyers on the street or a result of Edinburgh Fringe experiences – but I’ve watched people at networking nights work their way round a room handing out flyers or business cards with hardly a pause to talk to anyone and then seem really pleased with themselves that they’d distributed every card they’d brought – in fact they’d have saved a lot of time and effort if they’d just stayed at home and dropped them straight into the recycling themselves. Only give out your cards when they’re asked for. If the other person is interested they’ll ask for your contact details, or for more information about your event – that’s when you can give them your card.
7. Don’t be Scared.
Most importantly remember there’s nothing to be scared of. Networking is just what we already do in our social lives – meeting new people, introducing people who’ll get along and nurturing friendships. Networking is just being open to those same things in our professional life as well.
Alexander Parsonage has been organising PubClub networking events for Artists Anonymous since 2005.