The role of networking in business generally can hardly be overestimated; for small businesses struggling to find new customers and market outlets it can make the difference between going to the top and going to the wall. For larger organisations too networking offers opportunities for new business that can sometimes be highly significant and not only in the context of improved sales; networking events attract entrepreneurial types looking for ways of getting their innovations to the market place, which can be a win-win situation.
In view of the widely acknowledged potential benefits of networking, it is surprising how little attention has been given to identifying the core skills required for successful and effective networking. Most organisations readily invest time and resources in networking events but typically people are sent to ‘network’ without ever being coached in how to do it effectively. The predictable consequence of this passive approach is that people take part believing implicitly that networking is simply about meeting people and ‘talking shop’. Unsurprisingly some people emerge as networking stars and others as networking flops.
While the stars move effortlessly from table to table, confidently establishing new and often very fruitful contacts, the majority of people will spend hours talking or being talked to without any tangible benefit, other than possibly the pleasure of engaging in conversation with another person. Of course, if enough events are attended most people will make some useful contacts, which is what motivates people to continue with the activity; as Kathy, the manager of a small PR business, puts it, ‘you have to be prepared to put up with a lot of directionless conversation to get the occasional piece of business, but it’s definitely worth it because that one piece of business can end up being what keeps you afloat’. This hit and miss approach to an activity on which so much could depend is by no means a necessary evil; on the contrary it is unnecessary and undesirable for so many people to waste so much time in pursuit of simply matching needs and desires with goods and services. In reality there is no rule saying that for some, i.e. the ‘networking stars’, there will be immediate and continuous benefits while for the rest there will be only the occasional gold nuggets.
Networking is a social interaction where all the psychological principles of social influence apply and can be utilised to achieve the desired goal. With appropriate guidance and coaching, almost anyone can understand the relevant rules of social psychology and use them to make networking less of a lottery and more of a structured process of matching people’s needs with available goods and services. Although many of the more subtle and powerful strategies of social influence need cultivating under the supervision of a psychological coach, there are some very simple psychological techniques that can make all the difference. There are four simple to master but powerful techniques that can rapidly improve a person’s networking effectiveness.
1. Be clear. You need to know exactly what you have to offer and be prepared and able to outline it, briefly, in a credible and compelling fashion. Avoid long rambling explanations that list every nuance of your product, people will get bored and simply not remember anything. You should think about how you can make yourself stand out, particularly if you are one of many others offering the same goods. Neil Geoghegan, Corporate Resources Director for Business Link North West, has experienced how certain business titles can lose their meaning; ‘there are so many business coaches the term has become meaningless; to counter this you get people qualifying the term, they tell you they are a business coach specialising in the IT industry’. Although an improvement on just using the generic term this still doesn’t make people sit up and listen. You can however get people’s attention by saying something that is both accurate and makes people want to know more. Chartered Psychologist and Development Coach Vivienne Young advises; ‘to be really effective you need to say something that instantly gets people’s interest. I don’t introduce myself as a business coach, I prefer to engage people’s curiosity with comments like ‘I spend my day helping people to build models’, which usually results in people asking me to explain and showing a genuine interest. I’ve then created an opportunity to outline – to a very receptive audience – how I develop people using a behavioural modelling approach to coaching’
2. Be attentive. Listening is an active process; it involves more than just politely waiting for someone to stop talking so you can start. Listening is about focusing on the person who is talking and showing that you are interested by asking questions to elicit more information. People will always be impressed (and will like you more!) if you can demonstrate that you have listened, which means that at an appropriate time you have to show you have remembered something, and almost anything will do. While this might sound manipulative it is in fact no more than learning how to create rapport and establish good interpersonal relationships. Making the effort to listen and remember what someone is saying is a pleasant experience for both parties – the icing on the cake is that it can lead to very fruitful business relationships too.
3. Be altruistic. The purpose of networking is to help and be helped so don’t fixate on the latter; Chris Whiteley, an Executive Coach and former Finance Director for the Siemens Corporation believes networking events should be called ‘helping events’. He points out that; ‘you need to take the broad view, the benefits of networking are not usually immediate, what happens is people get to know you and somewhere down the line if they can help you they will. You should look for opportunities to help others; for example, if you meet someone who you know would benefit from meeting one of your professional contacts then make it happen.’ Chris’s outlook is well grounded in the research findings from social psychology which tells us that once you have helped someone you have created a special relationship with them; a relationship that makes them want to reciprocate by helping you.
4. Be honest. Although you might feel compelled to exaggerate in order to get some business it is a dangerous game to play. If you make claims that you can’t substantiate the deception could and probably will come back to bite you. Neil Geoghegan has strong views on this issue; ‘The worse thing you can do is network successfully and then fail to deliver the goods. Being long on promise, short on delivery won’t win business. The viral nature of the networking groups means you risk everything if you fail to deliver – bad news travels fast’. Research in social psychology endorses the view that honesty is the best policy; basically if you are open and honest about what you cannot do, it makes claims about what you can do that more believable.
Taking on board these four principles for creating effective social interactions will not only make the networking experience more successful it will make it more fun too. Gary Fitzgibbon
Chartered Psychologist and Executive Coach
T: 0845 111 6543