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Networking Never Stops
Tips for Making (and Keeping) Strong Connections

By Susan McKee

How to NetworkNetworking is essential to success. Why? People like to do business with people they know. If they remember you, if you're a "familiar face," you have a better chance to make a sale, get yourself hired or at least have your sales pitch heard.

It's not easy. We're not supposed to speak to strangers. Isn't it impolite to walk up to people we don't know and start talking? But, look around you at the next industry reception or trade show. Those who wait for others to come to them are found in the corners of the room, holding up the walls and looking enviously at those who glide around the gathering, meeting people. Guess who's going to get more business in the future!

Americans have a word for it: shmoozing. The soft edges of the word, borrowed from Yiddish, emphasize the fuzzy nature of the concept that encompasses many networking behaviors from introducing yourself to a potential client to sending someone you've met at a trade show a "thank you" note for spending time with you. Networking is sharing advice and information, it's a way to gain support and build business.

You know you need to do more of it. So, steel yourself and pledge to attend the next networking opportunity that comes your way — a Chamber of Commerce luncheon, a Rotary gathering, or even your high school reunion. Then, do advance preparation. Here are some ideas:

  • Prepare a 7-9 second self-introduction….keyed to the event.

  • Read a local newspaper, a national newspaper, appropriate professional journals for conversational contributions.

  • Extend a firm, handshake as a greeting ( jellyfish need not apply).

  • Take the time for pleasantries. Small talk is important... it leads to big talk, big business and best friends. If you can make others feel comfortable, you're ahead of the game.

  • Have plenty of business cards, readily accessible, and give them to everyone you meet. Not only will they know exactly what your name is, but how to reach you later.

Think of that self-introduction as a personal mini-mission statement. If you've thought it out, you won't be tongue-tied at first impression. Nobody knows your work better than you do, so don't be bashful about promoting your business in conversations with others.

Conversation is a natural and enjoyable human activity, to be sure. But, it works even better with just a little attention and planning. The point of all this is not to show how much smarter or well-read you are than the person you're talking to. It's practical: both life and work flow more smoothly when we are comfortable with conversation and know how to make others feel comfortable talking with us.

Think ahead and pick a few topics to talk about. What happened during the latest tennis tournament or golf match? Is there a new four-lane bypass planned? When will the rains come? The local news headlines, current trends in your industry, even the weather conditions outside are easier to talk about with advance preparation.

Avoid "big talk" — the future of United States involvement in Iraq, the spread of AIDS or a hotly contested political campaign. Save those topics for conversations with people you know well. Small talk is lighter fare. It's how we break the ice and get a sense of who people are and what they value - not a way to browbeat others with your point of view.

What's the worst thing that can happen if you introduce yourself to a stranger at a trade show? No, you won't die from rejection! Nothing ventured, nothing gained — or, to put it another way, if you don't ask, the answer is always no! Seize the moment. If you don't, it will be gone — along with the opportunity.

Some things you learned in childhood do help in networking. Be nice to everybody you meet (you never know where they'll turn up later). Introduce yourself to officers, staff, and other members of the associations or organizations you belong to. Become acquainted with the staff members of clients.

Pen handwritten thank you notes for favors — a good idea, a referral, an invitation to a party — whatever. Send birthday cards or just call to say "how are you?" Keep in touch (work that Rolodex!) even when you're not actively soliciting business.

When you think about it, isn't networking another word for neighborliness? You bring in my mail when I'm out of town and I'll walk your dog when you're late getting home from work. Think of the round-robin of exchanging information and referrals as "helping," and it becomes a lot more familiar-and there doesn't have to be an immediate payback. You don't expect the elderly couple down the block to weed your garden if you do their shopping for them, do you?

Resolve now to improve your shmooz opportunities. Here are some ideas to act on:

  • Consider attending more conferences, either in your current field or the career you'd like to pursue — as much for the quality of the people sitting around you as the quality of the speakers on the dais. Think about it: dozens of people you want to talk to in one place!

  • Join local professional organizations in your area of expertise, then sign up for committees and volunteer for leadership roles. You'll be amazed how that network can yield referrals, joint projects and other opportunities.

  • Go to fund-raisers for organizations of interest to you. Think about it: the people who attend these events tend to have more money and influence than those who don't. Mingle and mix — or go the whole distance and volunteer to help stage the event.

Why go to all this trouble to be out and about? We cannot create a positive presence unless we are present. Being seen allows one to have the casual conversation — the informal chat — that is the cornerstone of relationships. It's not who you know, but who knows you that counts.


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