How to network like a pro (even when you don’t feel like one)

A client recently complimented me on my ability to network, saying that I seem to be able to easily connect with professionals and leaders and develop relationships that are seen as ‘unobtainable’ for most.

Now, I was certainly flattered by the compliment but I had to admit that there are many colleagues, employees and workshop facilitators from my past who would have a very different opinion!

That’s because I never used to be good at networking. In fact, I used to be pretty terrible at it.

Networking is a muscle – you need to work on it in order to build your strength. And while I don’t consider myself to be an expert networker, I wanted to share what I have learned as I’ve honed my skills over the years in the hopes that it will help others who still need to ‘bulk up’ their networking capabilities.

Finding my voice

I am naturally more introverted. As a student and young professional, the thought of speaking in public was horrifying. Conversing individually with teachers or people I didn’t know filled me with dread. I would even wait in the bathroom ahead of big meetings so that I could simply take my seat right before it began and avoided networking events like the plague.

To make matters worse, I was receiving criticism over my speaking voice, which often sounds breathless and, as a result, nervous. I was incredibly self-conscious about it and further holding myself back during meetings.

When it came time for one of my annual performance reviews, my manager sat me down and explained that unless I overcame these fears and improved upon my public speaking skills, my career would not go any further. It was the brutal but honest feedback.

After that, I tried a myriad of public speaking courses – group programs, 1:1 coaching, video role plays – you name it; I did it. I was committed to improving but after months of trying, it wasn’t happening. In fact, all of the scrutiny was causing me to get worse!

Then, one day, I heard a colleague singing in the office. I was amazed by her confidence to start singing on a whim and in front of her colleagues. I remember thinking, “I could never do that.” But then, it hit me that singing in public is a lot scarier than speaking in public, and if I could learn to do that, then I could certainly learn to speak in public with confidence. I signed up for singing lessons and eventually, worked my way all the way up to a solo performance at our studio’s recital.

Singing lessons helped unleash a newly found confidence. I learned that my speaking voice was affected by a physiological disorder whereby my left vocal cord doesn’t abduct properly and was able to develop techniques for better dealing with the issue.

I discovered that occasionally being centre of attention was fun and exciting. I also learned that if you need to develop a skill, you should do so within an environment that you enjoy. I figured out how to overcome my fear by immersing myself into an activity which I naturally was drawn to – singing. The key then is to identify how you can build your confidence by combining it with something you are naturally interested in and keen to explore further.

Communicating with authenticity

It’s easy to recognise when people are talking about issues and ideas they truly care about. Their face lights up and there’s a new sense of energy to their conversation. These are signs that the person is speaking authentically.

Authenticity comes from communicating your personal beliefs and interests. It’s not a struggle or difficult to talk about these things, because they represent who you are. When you can speak to that, your story is compelling, interesting and engaging. This is why I believe authenticity is a key factor in networking success.

We all attend networking events now and then with the purpose of meeting future prospects or potential partners. But it’s important not to make this your sole objective for the event. Attending events for the purpose of meeting new people with a mutual interest is far more important than pushing a certain product or service you want to sell. 

I attend events because I want to meet like-minded people, understand their journey and learn from their experiences. I ask genuine questions and while I’m listening, I think about how I can help them, whether it might be via an introduction, sending an article they would find interesting or recommending a tool or service that might help them solve a problem. The worst thing you can do attend an event simply to push your product or hand out business cards. Aim for genuine engagement and discussion and where possible, bring details from your previous conversations back into discussion to show that you are truly interested. Sometimes the smallest piece of insight and recall can have a profound effect.

Networking tips

There are few practical tips that can improve the effectiveness of your networking once you are feeling confident and interested in communicating in an authentic way.

  1. Know your elevator pitch

Most people I meet struggle with their elevator pitch – that is the first line used to introduce yourself. When I’m working with clients, I typically ask them to fine tune their pitch by imagining they are in a lift with the person they admire most in the world. If this person were to turn to you and ask “So, what do you do?”, how do you respond? Would you stumble and stutter for words? Or would you have an answer ready that is clear, authentic and passionate? If you haven’t already worked out a few versions of this pitch, now is the time.

  1. Dress appropriately

Research shows that it takes just seconds for people to form an opinion when they first meet someone. It’s natural to create our first opinion based on what we see – such as how the person is dressed and their personal appearance (stylish hair, clean nails, polished shoes etc). That means it’s important to consider the impression you are sending. What you say in the subsequent 30 seconds will then determine whether that person will want to learn more about you.

  1. Follow proper business card etiquette

It is a very rare day when I don’t have my business cards, but I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. I was once introduced to a high-profile female company director. She asked me for my business card but I didn’t have any with me. She told me in very direct terms that I must carry business cards at all times. Fast forward two years later, this same Director introduced me to a colleague. I spent 10 minutes fumbling in my unruly, large handbag to find my card. Another lesson learnt.

Ensure you always have a current business card. If you are between roles, then create a personal business card, including your social media details such as your LinkedIn profile. Get multiple business card holders so you have them in the bags and briefcases you use most.

At events, wear an outfit with pockets and place your business cards in your left pocket so that you can easily pull one out while you’re shaking hands or saying goodbye. The next day, it’s a good idea to contact each person you received a business card from with a “thank you” message and/or connect on social media. You should also file the business card and make note of where you met them and topics you discussed.

Building a strong network takes time but it’s mostly about putting in the effort. Invest in yourself by working to build your skills, such as public speaking, conversation, and memory and invest in others by attending relevant events with a genuine enthusiasm and desire to connect. If you approach networking with this mentality, you’re sure to find success.