One of the benefits of networking is that it’s a great way of improving your interviewing skills. The logic is simple. If you want to become a better actor, act. To become a better writer, write. And to become better at interviewing, interview. Networking conversations are like low-stress, high-impact, self-initiated interviews. By having lots of these mini-conversations when you aren’t under pressure, you get better at explaining what you want people to know about you. And the more you do it, the more skilled and focused you become.
“But I hate small talk,” people sometimes protest. Then don’t engage in small talk. Talk about things of interest to you and others. One sure-fire way of feeding a conversation is to try to discover what’s of keen interest to the other person, then talk more about that. Offer some helpful ideas. Don’t assume, “Oh, she’s probably already thought of that.” Maybe not. And of course you can steer the course of the conversation by inserting information about your own interests also.
Pay attention to what people say. Care about what they say. Listen hard, and practice reading between the lines. As management guru Peter Drucker says, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t said.”
Another secret of effective networking is to give at least as much as you take. If you only take, you’ll get a reputation for that, and in time people will avoid you. If you give – especially if you give first, without knowing whether or not you’ll receive – people will be attracted to you. “An offer of reciprocity gets my attention,” says Alan Grafman, CEO of Modelwire. “It’s my personal secret to always ask the person I’m networking with, ‘How can I help you?’”
Why not try this technique right now? Think of a couple of people that you know who might benefit from knowing each other. Call them up, and explain that you think so-and-so would be beneficial for him or her to meet.
I recently wanted to use the professional services of an artist I know. I didn’t feel I could afford his top-drawer price, but I wanted his top-drawer work. So I explained that to him. I added, “I know you’re worth it, I just can’t afford it at this time.” Then I volunteered, “I know someone who could use your services. When we finish talking, I’ll call him and suggest that you two meet.” And I did. The second person then called and made an appointment with the artist to discuss some business. Later, the artist called me and said, “Thanks for the introduction. We’re meeting next week. And don’t worry about the price for your project, I’m going to give you what you need for a price you can afford.”
The more you do to help someone else’s career, the more willing that person will be to help yours. You know the expression, “What goes around comes around.” With technology, what goes around comes around even faster.
By the way, if you’re a “gray” – older than forty – make an extra effort to get to know and network with young people, who tend to be more in tune with new trends. In return you can make the relationship mutually beneficial by providing insights and advice based on your years of experience in the business world.
What if you find your efforts to network stymied by intense shyness or anxiety? Most of the time, you can reshape your behavior and thought patterns to control and overcome shyness. Everyone has some degree of social phobia; most people feel nervous meeting and talking to strangers. If you are excessively shy, you have to deal with it. The truest and best way is to understand that others experience it, too. Other people feel just as nervous as you do at times, maybe more so. So if you bravely act first and help those around you relax, you’ll get more out of your time together. This doesn’t mean you need to become a social butterfly to network successfully; it does mean that you can’t be lazy about making strong, diverse connections on an ongoing basis.
Sometimes it’s necessary to draw limits on your networking activities. As you get better known, you will be the person with whom others will want to network. You may have to guard your time. A simple statement such as, “If you have any other questions, just send a note,” can be a helpful way of ending a conversation and giving yourself a chance to move on. If you’re pressed for face-to-face time, you can say, “I’ll be happy to spend a few minutes on the phone with you.”
Larry Feld, president of Human Performance Strategies, has developed his own techniques for controlling his networking time. “I qualify [people] up front and then determine how to best manage the situation,” he explains. “I inquire about the subject, assess how much time is required to deal with it, whether on the spot or whether to schedule a more convenient time. If someone wants me as a source but I don’t want to be, I’ll say, ‘I am not comfortable in making such a recommendation because I’m not that familiar with your work.’”
Keith Johnson, a vice president with ThinkArena, adds this advice: “If people are blatantly trying to me to get themselves somewhere, sometimes I’ll still direct them to the right people. But I won’t give the kind of introduction that they would get if they had at least faked some friendship or mutual respect… And when people send others to me, I’ll almost always talk to them. You just never know.”
D.A. (Debra) Benton is a contributing author to the Personal Branding Blog. She has been helping great individuals and organizations get even better for over 20 years. Just as exceptional athletes rely on excellent coaching to hone their skills, Debra's clients rely on her advice to advance their careers. She focuses on what is truly important to convert what you and your organization want to be from a vision into a reality. TopCEOCoaches.com ranks her in the World's Top 10 CEO Coaches noting she is the top female.