Do not proceed without a smile

August 19, 2005

There is a fine art to networking, says Harriet Swain. First present a friendly face, then anticipate questions, make your pitch and follow up. And don't worry about being snubbed - it's a price worth paying

We've met, you say? Biochemistry? Still not ringing any bells. Do excuse me. Must congratulate that woman over there in the red lipstick about her latest..."

Sound familiar? Need some help making friends and influencing people?

That's enough about you. For successful networking you have to forget your own nervousness and concentrate on the other person, says Carole Stone, author of The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking .

Nick Hammond, director of the Higher Education Academy's psychology subject centre, says networking is a two-way process. "You hope you are giving something useful to your colleagues as well as getting something from them," he says. "Don't be too demanding, and be generous with your own time."

He says you must remember that relationships change: someone who was once your student may later be in a position to offer you assistance, and you may not make use of some contacts until years after you have made them.

The secret is to get your name known. Stone suggests asking questions from the floor at conferences. Louise Archer, founder of the Scientific Women's Academic Network, advises anyone publishing a paper to send it to key people in their field to help get themselves known. "And go to things," she says.

Stone also recommends giving yourself a time limit at events if you are nervous. "Say to yourself, 'I'm going to give it an hour and I'm not going to waste time sitting in a corner having a drink on my own, or spending half an hour talking to one person'," she says. "It's totally useless going somewhere and wishing you were elsewhere."

She says you must give someone your full attention for two or three minutes. It is then acceptable to move on, although, to avoid leaving them on their own, you need to take them with you or bring someone else into the conversation.

If there is someone you particularly want to meet, Stone suggests getting the organiser of the event, or someone else you know, to introduce you. The more respect that person commands the better. "If Tony Blair introduces me to you, you will take more notice of me than if it's my aunt," she says. She suggests you loiter until there is a gap in the conversation, when you can introduce yourself and arrange a time to speak to them in more detail. "They know your face, but you haven't made the pitch," she says.

One of the first things to think about is how you describe yourself, says Rob Yeung, director of business psychology consultancy Talentspace. He says this should vary according to your audience. If you are at a specialist conference, you should probably describe yourself and your research in some detail. At less specialist events, you need to think about a description that will make sense to more people and consider some of the follow-up questions it is likely to raise.

"If I want to spark people's interest, I describe myself as a psychologist working in television," he says. "Once you have made an initial impact, you can think about explaining yourself in a little more detail."

He says you also need to think about what you want to achieve from networking so that if someone asks what they can do to help you, you have a couple of sentences prepared. But keep this to yourself. "You have a networking objective but it should always remain secret," he warns.

Instead you should work on building rapport. Think about topics of conversation you can strike up with anyone in the room, he suggests. "It's about being memorable and likeable." Stone says you must make sure you look your best, have done your homework about other people and have a smile on your face. "People aren't going to refer you unless you have been warm and friendly," she says.

Paul Kleiman, associate director of Palatine, the HEA subject centre for dance, drama and music, says that what makes a good networker is not what they do but how they do it. "How they listen, how they connect with people, the sorts of questions they ask, how they show an interest, how they gather information, how they remember information about people, how they follow up and how they stay in touch."

Stone says that following up contacts is vital. You must always offer to follow up the meeting with a call and ring when you say you will.

Archer suggests going to events with someone more practised at networking than you are to give you confidence and help you out if necessary, although Stone advises parting at the door to increase your chance of meeting others.

She says you should also always be prepared to risk a snub rather than miss out on a potentially interesting encounter.

When things go wrong, Hammond says, it is often because one party is unaware of the other's work context and is making too many demands - something that is a particular danger in cross-cultural contacts. "You have to explain, to give a wider picture," he says.

He also stresses the importance of face-to-face contact. But Kleiman says one of the advantages of web-based networks is that you can stay on the periphery, observing the communications and transactions. He warns about network overload and says you need to be strategic about which networks you join. And if you're still feeling shy, Archer offers some reassurance. "It gets easier."

Further Information

The Ultimate Guide to Successful Networking , by Carole Stone, Vermillion, 2004.
The Rules of Networking , by Rob Yeung, Cyan Books, publication scheduled for September.

TOP TIPS

  • Go for it
  • Make an impact
  • Smile
  • Be prepared to give as well as take
  • Follow up contacts

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