One of the bits of advice my friend Nick gave me when I was first starting out – along with, you know, making sure to actually take my own advice – was to experiment with some different ways of connecting with potential customers.
I am a sociable person … but wow, do I struggle with networking.
Even the most confident, outgoing, driven person can find networking in real life a bit difficult. It can feel like a really unnatural thing to do, and unfortunately a lot of networking events end up being stilted, awkward and corporate.
Corporate – and a waking nightmare. Like the one where you realise you’ve forgotten your trousers and you’re about to go on stage.
“Ok, so everyone introduce themselves one by one and add in an interesting fact about yourself!”
As soon as someone asks me to give an interesting fact about myself, I become the most boring person on the planet. Networking events like this would make anyone seize up – especially a creative business owner who’s used to being, well, a bit more creative.
But if you find the right group to network with, you can:
- Make good connections that could lead to future sales
- Promote your business in an authentic and meaningful way
- Embed yourself in the local community so you’re likely to be remembered
The big barriers to networking
So networking can bring you some excellent results for your creative business – if you do it right. There are a few big barriers to successful networking which it’s important to overcome to make sure you maximise your time (and energy) while you’re there.
First, social situations can be stressful. Some people find social situations more stressful than others. But generally, social situations with new people can trigger stress responses of varying degrees; your heart beats faster, you get sweaty palms and your adrenaline surges – or you might just feel a bit nervous.
Second, finding the right sort of networking can be difficult. There are thousands of networking events out there, some of which will be completely wrong for you and your business. Sifting through all the options to select one or two potential ‘good’ events is a time and energy drain.
Finally, knowing what to say when you actually get to the event is equally as stressful as the event itself. How do you balance professionalism with personality? Do you pitch, or just pretend you’re there to make friends? How do you explain what you do simply and engagingly?
Eight steps to successful networking
Networking really can be beneficial to your business – and you can overcome those big barriers to make sure you make the most it. Here are the eight steps I use for successful networking, and they’re easy to follow.
1. Hunt out diverse events
Don’t just go along to one networking event, hate it and vow never to do it again. You need to find and attend a mix of diverse events to really understand what sort of networking works for you. The more types of event you go to, the more you’ll understand what’s relevant and worthwhile for your creative business.
I’ve been to a mixture of paid and non-paid events, community run and business run, workshop style and informal, and even ones where there’s not ‘proper’ networking like attending a business fair. I’ve got a handle now on which ones I like, which will help me seek out relevant and meaningful ones in the future.
Don’t forget the power of being the only ‘creative’ business at an event full of ‘corporate’ businesses, especially if you offer any services. Many ‘corporate’ businesses are interested in creative activities as part of their engagement and wellbeing programmes for employees, so you could form some good contacts.
2. Use business cards
Confession time: for the first year of my business I didn’t have business cards. No need for them (or so I thought) especially with most of my business being conducted via email or the phone.
Except they are very handy to have when you meet new people; not necessarily because of the information they contain but because handing someone a card is a good way to break the ice after you’ve first started chatting. So for networking events, they’re essential.
Your business card should reflect your business, be appropriately branded, and have they key information a new contact needs to know: your name, business and contact.
I think business cards should be as simple as possible, because simplicity equates to assurance and confidence, which ultimately looks more impressive. There’s no need to bung your phone, email, website, fax and social media details on there plus images and busy branding, because it doesn’t look confident.
There’s an excellent section on business cards in Paul Arden’s book ‘It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be‘ if you want to read more about choosing an impressive and useful business card.
3. Arrive composed
So you’ve prepared for the event – now to get there. Feeling flustered, running late, carrying loads of bags or sweating profusely are all ways of arriving to a networking event decidedly un-composed. Arrive composed and you’ll feel more confident, make a better first impression, and you won’t feel more stressed than necessary.
If you do end up dragging along lots of bags or running late, take a few minutes to compose yourself in the bathroom before going into the event; a late, confident arrival is better than an on-time, frantic one.
Another good tip I was given (at a networking event) is to arrive slightly early so you can start conversations before everyone has already formed groups. It’ll also give you a chance to get to the refreshments without saying “Excuse me” over and over again.
4. Have a simple answer
A big barrier once you’re at the networking event is to know what to talk about. The question you are guaranteed to be asked is “And what do you do?”.
For creative business owners, it can often be complicated to simply and clearly explain what you do, especially if there are many strings to your bow. But having a simple answer to that question helps start conversations, makes you feel confident, and quickly shows people what you’re about.
Having an effective and meaningful brand will help you answer that question very easily, because that’s what a brand is for: it says ‘I do this, for these people, in this way, and I make them feel this’ in a streamlined and effortless way.
Take some time before you start attending networking events to work out a simple answer to the question “What do you do?”. In your answer, try and include:
- Your customer group
- A verb that shows what you do e.g. ‘I make’ or ‘I talk’
- A succinct description of your core products or services
This simple answer is a bit like the 30-second pitch, except about a third as long. So my answer to the question “What do you do?” is: “I help creative businesses find a sustainable path to success”. Clear, simple, and plenty in there for someone else to pick up on and continue the conversation.
5. Be clear on your aims
While some people might disagree when I said I wasn’t very chatty (ahem), most would agree that I’m direct and straight-talking. I like other people who are direct too, which means I find the lack of transparency in networking frustrating.
For me, successful networking means being transparent about why you’re there, and not being ashamed of it. So after an introduction, I’ll often say “I’m here to try and get some new clients” because (a) that’s the truth and (b) actually saying it out loud means you don’t have to sneak around it later on.
Know why you’re at the networking event and state those aims clearly. It might be to gain clients, or connect with local business, or just to meet people. Whatever it is, you’d be amazed at how well people respond to complete transparency.
6. Use compliments
So you’re at the networking event, a couple of people have approached you for a chat and now it’s time for you to introduce yourself to some potential new customers. Your stress levels are probably sky high and you’re thinking “How do you even start a conversation out of the blue?”.
The simple solution is a compliment.
Approaching someone you haven’t met before with a compliment is good because:
- It breaks the ice immediately
- It gives you something to say which doesn’t sound too ‘corporate’
- It makes the recipient feel good
There’s a fine line between compliments and being creepy, so avoid anything like “I COULD GET LOST IN YOUR EYES” and stick to “I really like your outfit/bag/shoes/watch”.
If you don’t feel comfortable giving these sorts of compliments, that’s fine; it’s something to use if you need to, but it’s not essential.
7. Give more than you get
Just like Twitter and other social media channels, some businesses can end up using networking events as a way to broadcast their message, without really thinking about what their audience want to hear.
A way to network successfully while you’re at the event is to listen carefully to other people, ask questions and generally give more than you get. People generally feel flattered when you ask them to talk about themselves, and if you can give help – such as linking them up with your connections – then that’s even better.
Anyone you talk to at the networking event will remember how enthusiastic, interested and helpful you were, which aids you in laying the foundations for future work together.
8. Make sure to follow up
Now you’ve attended and successfully navigated the networking event, make sure to follow up with the people you met. If you’ve been collecting business cards, send them a quick email saying it was nice to meet them, or alternatively send them a message on social media.
Choosing when to follow up for maximum success is a tricky one. I feel the next day is a good option, because it’s soon enough to jog their memory, but not too soon as to be meaningless (e.g. “I just spoke to her, why is she emailing me?”).
In your email, remember step 7 – give more than you get. Make sure to say if you’re available to help them out, or send them over those useful links you were discussing.
Successful networking is possible.
Too many creative business owners are put off networking because they see it as ‘corporate’ – or they feel stressed in that social situation, can’t find the right group to network with, or don’t know what to say when they get there.
I use eight steps to make sure the networking I do is as successful as possible, which any creative business owner can follow.
Preparation is key to successful networking, so hunt out diverse events, use business cards, and arrive composed. When you’re there, be clear, concise and authentic: have a simple answer to the question “What do you do?” and be clear on your aims for the event. Use compliments to break the ice and give more than you get to ensure you give a good impression. Finally, follow up after the event with your new, potential customers.
See you by the coffee – and don’t forget to give me your card.