Ninjas are agile, fast, and efficient. Business networking is typically the exact opposite. It’s often slow, confused, and discombobulated. Yet, while many people avoid it, networking is one of the most important tools in a business owner’s toolkit. When we network, we increase our knowledge and opportunities, and we also amplify the messages we spread about our companies. This is why networking events or conferences are so popular in the business world- especially for startups and small business.
People often avoid networking because of social anxiety, lack of knowledge, inexperience, or doubt that networking can actually be useful. If this describes you – you are not alone. But experienced business owners and marketing/PR experts all agree that such doubts and fears are irrational. People simply lack the necessary skills to feel more comfortable in a networking situation. Michelle Garrett of Garrett Public Relations says:
Small business owners need to do more networking to make more contacts, not only for possible referrals, but as resources and even as friends you can turn to when you have a question or problem related to your business.
Since networking is not exclusive to specifically labeled events and conferences, this means that any opportunity you meet someone is a networking opportunity! Now, this doesn’t mean that every social event is an opportunity to plug your business or work out a deal. It simply means that each of us has many opportunities to connect with someone who could help us in the future. To help ease small business owners and entrepreneurs into the world of networking, here are three basic tips to becoming a networking ninja.
1. Make your first impression count- in a good way.
Making a good first impression is one of the most critical parts of networking. The first impression should be smooth and subtle, much like a ninja entrance. Through extensive studies such as the ones done by Princeton psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis on first impressions, we now know that it only takes people a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger – based completely on their appearance. The research also found that generally, longer interaction or exposure didn’t alter the initial impression in any way.
The bottom line: look presentable. Make sure that you are appropriately dressed for the venue and/or event (whether it’s black tie, jeans, or pajamas). Dressing out of place causes people to believe that you are unable to pay attention to detail, and can make others feel uncomfortable by feeling out of place. In an article for The Muse, career strategist Jenny Foss talks about a time when overdressed candidates made the rest of the company feel out of place when hiring to fill a position:
So, when the time came for this company to hire a new CMO, I wasn’t at all surprised when the CEO made it very clear to me that those being interviewed should not wear suits. Casual attire only, please, he said. He didn’t want to feel underdressed in his rainbow socks.
Even though the position seemed “fancy”, the attire was not. Same goes for networking events – when in doubt, ask. And make sure that your facial expression matches the feel of the event, all while staying friendly and inviting. Remember that you make a first impression, people judge your overall physical appearance.
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2. Find a connection with the person you are talking to.
One of the biggest misunderstandings about networking is that you should only talk business. But when the goal is to make a lasting connection, jumping straight into business discussion is probably not the best approach. Instead, try finding something in common outside of business – a neutral topic on which you can build a relationship with the other person. This is important because a good contact is someone who can not only help you, but someone you can help. It’s easier to connect with a person by asking an open-ended question. This way, people can respond and you can easily ask follow-up questions. And for those moments when you get stuck, business expert Bill Cates gave his best tips on open ended questions in an article for Hubspot:
Here’s a quick little trick I discovered that might help. If you find yourself asking a closed-ended question, you can always open it up at the end. For example, if you start by asking “Did you find value in this process?” you can follow it up with, “If so, please tell me in what ways.”
When a connection has been made, it’s finally time to tell your story. Not your personal one, although you can if you’d like, but your company’s story – the idea behind your product, why it’s helpful/original/great, and anything else that you identify as being important. Sneak it in like a ninja would – naturally. After all, a conversation should not be a sales pitch.
3. Follow up.
Most entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle to follow-up after networking opportunities. Even after a meaningful conversation and connection, it’s highly unlikely that people will remember who you are. Following up after a networking opportunity is vital to keeping the connection, and can be done in several ways. Email, LinkedIn, and Twitter are just some of the ways to connect to people. Typically, sending some sort of direct message with some details from the conversation and your contact information are enough to begin the connection. Sending regular updates, articles, or contacting the person any time something reminds you of them is also a good practice, it keeps the contact active in your circle.
In the end, we are in complete control of these seemingly daunting things like cultivating business relationships. Don’t be discouraged if networking doesn’t come naturally. Just like ninjas, networking ninjas work at their skills until they have perfected them, making sure they feel confident to face any obstacles in their way.
image credit: Jurgen Appelo
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