Kate Strawson: Networking – Feel the fear and do it anyway

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Following a recent conversation with my colleagues about business development it became clear that not everyone enjoys networking. This came as a surprise to me, especially considering the industry we work in.

For a start, PR is fundamentally about building relationships – whether that’s with clients, journalists, partners or suppliers. Also, it’s our job to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its target audiences, so to be a successful PR professional you need to have good communication skills and be confident talking to a wide range of people.

Without doubt, everyone here at Shooting Star enjoys working with people – especially getting to know them and what makes them tick. However, not everyone enjoys selling, and that’s what a lot of people mistakenly think networking is.

Admittedly, when we first set up the business, we felt the pressure to convert contacts into clients, and going to business clubs, exhibitions and events seemed like a great way to meet lots of potential clients. Gradually, however, we’ve come to realise that we may never do business with the people we meet at networking events, and that’s OK, because over the years we’ve met some genuinely interesting people who have now become friends, trusted advisers and referrers.

And I always try to bear that in mind; we may not directly do business with the people we meet but they might refer us to the people they meet.

Some people even question if networking works (usually the ones who don’t enjoy it and therefore want to give themselves an excuse not to do it), and while on its own it may not enable you to achieve your goals, as part of a wider business development strategy it can be very effective.

How do I know? Because we track where all our clients come from and so far, over a third have come from attending events – although not necessarily business clubs as we also go to expos, conferences, awards dinners and openings.

So, the next time you find yourself in a room full of strangers, nursing a glass of wine and wondering where your nearest exit is, try changing your mindset. Instead of thinking, “What am I going to get out of this?” think, “What can I offer?” Rather than talking about yourself or your business, give the other person the opportunity to talk about themselves by asking lots of questions and showing a genuine interest in what they have to say. Hopefully they will reciprocate and you can have a more natural conversation than boring the other person to death with your sales pitch.

Another common mistake is forgetting your business cards. This is so basic but I often meet people at events who fumble around in the bottom of their bag or desperately search through their wallet hoping to find at least one dog-eared card before admitting they came out without any.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve done this myself so I know how embarrassing it can be. Now I carry a whole box of business cards with me in my handbag, so there’s no way I’ll be caught empty-handed.

Hopefully, once you’ve handed over your business card, you should get one in return but don’t be tempted to just file your collection of cards away never to be seen again. Discipline yourself to setting half an hour aside the morning after an event to follow up any new contacts you might have made with an email and add them to your address book, making a note of when and where you met them.

As a PR and marketing professional I would also of course advise following them on Twitter and connecting with them on LinkedIn. And do all of this without having any expectations that they will suddenly want to do business with you.

I strongly believe that people do business with people they feel a connection with or have a shared interest with, so take the time and effort to build solid relationships. I’m not saying you must become their BFF, but try connecting with them on a level other than business. Perhaps there are other events you could attend together?

Above all, don’t expect overnight miracles from networking. It’s not about collecting as many business cards as possible or even winning a new client. It’s about meeting new people, widening your circle of business acquaintances (or even friends), building real relationships and giving as much as you take. Then, you never know, you may find you get to like networking, rather than dreading it.