Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Conference season starts, sharpen up your networking skills

This week marks the National Housing Federation Conference and the start of the season.  Gathered together in Birmingham will be hundreds of people all with common interest of social housing. They will chat, listen to speeches, go to workshops and  they will justify attendance and the hours spent in the bar by ‘networking’.  There will be lots of suppliers, some with stands at the exhibitions and some without; all hoping to raise their profile with the buyers and develop more new business. They will be sponsoring drinks and dinners and entertainment. These behaviours  will be repeated at  sector conferences and party conferences across the land for the next few months.

These conferences should to be fantastic learning opportunities; the sessions should be stimulating the workshops engaging and the networking fruitful.
But networking, even in professional circles is not always easy. From an early age we are taught not to talk to strangers, many of us are shy about encounters with someone we don’t know. Different personalities have different levels of comfort with the whole concept of meeting strangers, some feeling much more threatened than others.  Some people feel affronted by people who are overly chummy or who share information really quickly. Entering a room full of people you don’t know is probably the second most terrifying experience in business, the first would be  having to make a presentation to them! So how do you make the networking more fruitful?

Have a goal. Decide what it is you want from this opportunity to network. Setting yourself a goal will increase your motivation.  Is there a key topic that you would like to find information about? Why are you networking? In what way do you want to expand your network? Maybe you want to capture  funny stories to amuse an audience with or ask people for the most innovative thing their organisation has done this year.

Don’t just talk to the people you already know. That’s rather obvious and sometimes talking to people you know and re-connecting with those you have not seen for a while is the great strategy, but you may be kidding yourself; there is a room full of opportunities to be had. You may want to read the delegate list and identify a couple of people you really want to meet. Work out where you can come up against them.
Get into conversations. Even if you have gone to the conference with other people, try sitting separately at the sessions and at the tea breaks. The easiest people to get into conversations with are those on their own. They are probably really keen for someone to join them.  Watch the body language of groups identify people in twos or threes whose body language suggests they are open to joiners (facing slightly outwards, scanning the room) rather than deep in a huddle and closed.  Avoid bigger groups unless you know someone in the group who can ease you in.

Be ready with your introductory chat. You can try ‘do you come here often?’ but it may not be the most suitable. Be ready to introduce yourself with a brief about what you do so that your listener will be able to put you in context. Shake their hand firmly, look them in the eye and be glad to meet them.  Be ready with a first question for them. At a conference you can ask about what they thought about the last session. Listen more than talk and use all the techniques you know about building rapport. Nod, smile, mirror their body language, use their metaphors. Keep being interested and ask questions.

Find out how what problems they are wrestling with. Connect them to someone who can help. Be a problem solver. Give information as well as asking. If you are networking with a purpose, tell them what your knowledge quest is and get them to introduce you to others who may help you. An introduction confers some status.

Share your business card and seek theirs. Make sure you note who you have talked to and what about.  Keeping records, particularly if your memory is shaky will enable you to pick up on shared topics when you meet again and it will enable you to connect other people who have the same need.
Follow up. If you want to build a relationship from your encounter you have to follow up. By giving them something they were looking for. So if you set yourself the challenge of identifying organisations that run mentoring schemes; share the list with those you talked to. You may well get remembered as ‘the mentoring guy’, but that’s better than not being remembered at all. Don’t do the business at the event, make a date to meet after, or agree to phone to make a date and do it. Get yourself a reputation for reliability and follow through. And do it promptly after the event.
And what will you get out of all this effort that hiding in the corner reading a magazine won’t get you?
48% of people find new jobs through people they know. Strategic partnerships can be formed through the discovery of common goals, common problems or common solutions.  Friendships can be made and support garnered.  Just knowing that others are facing the same challenges can be invigorating.
So off to conference with the goal identify, and the preparation done – enjoy yourself anfd have a fruitful networking time!

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