Too often, it’s not what you know but who you know. You can have the skills, the experience, and the vision to excel in a job, but without the right referral, advocate, or brand champion, you’ll never get the opportunity demonstrate your ability. Your next promotion, next sale, next client, will most likely be the result of someone in your network.
With so much emphasis on social media, it’s easy to forget how crucial it is to make real-life connections. Whether you’re attending a conference or symposium, or internally networking with people in other departments, we are the sum of our connections. My first client was someone I met at a reading series. My second client heard about me from my first client. And so on. Personal branding was how I was able to establish a solid reputation and attract the right clients, but it was networking that helped me build my client list in the first place.
There are endless networking opportunities out there, but whether you’re taking a potential client out to coffee or shaking hands at professional events, there are some basic practices that will help you create a lasting impression and make meaningful connections:
Do your homework. If you’re meeting someone one-on-one or going to an event where there’s someone in particular you’d like to meet, stalk them online do some research beforehand. Follow them on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, read op-eds or interviews they’ve done. You don’t necessarily have to use those facts in a conversation to let them know you did your research; it’s more to get a sense of their personality and outlook. If the person you’re meeting published an article about how smartphones are rotting our brains, the last thing you want to do is whip yours out during the conversation and suggest taking a selfie.
Let them talk. Most people LOVE to talk about themselves. I often tell the story of going to an industry cocktail party and meeting a new publishing reporter from the Wall Street Journal. I was determined to make the connection, so I went up to him, introduced myself, asked a few questions, and let him talk about himself for about 20 minutes. I don’t even think I told him I did PR. But at the end of our chat, we swapped business cards, and I followed up with him the next day. His response: “Yours was the best conversation I had all night.” We went on to work on several pieces together.
You may be concerned with getting in your elevator pitch and telling people about what you do. But in reality, you’ll make a far better impression if you let other people talk about what they do.
Create an action item. Before you wrap up the conversation, I recommend establishing a next step or action item. This will ensure you cultivate the connection and allow you to make a more meaningful follow up. It can be as simple as emailing them about that movie you guys talked about or going a bit deeper by providing a recommendation for a new initiative or project. This way, when you send a follow up email, it’s more meaningful than just a “great to meet you”.
Give more than take. It’s no secret that most of us network and make connections in the hopes of forwarding our own careers. I’ve never heard of someone going to a networking event because they want to find more people to help. But the ideal scenario is to create symbiotic relationships, where you’re able to help others just as much as they help you. So rather than following up with a pitch, I recommend following up with an offering. If you’re trying to court a client, don’t ask for their business right away. Instead, provide a recommendation that could help them.