7 tips for newbies to networking

Written by Guy Walsh

Intrigued by networking but a little nervous and don’t know where to start?

Here are seven tips for making the most of networking opportunities in your area.

These tips apply anywhere, though the networks that I mention are based in Leicester.

If you’re particularly nervous, why not come along to Countryside Connect, the event that I run? I’ll make sure that you’re well looked after!

1. Try it!

If you’re a freelancer or working solo in another capacity, there are multiple benefits to attending networking events. The only way you’ll know if networking is for you is to try it. And if it’s not for you – that’s fine too! We all have skills in different areas and just because some people (like me) love networking doesn’t mean we all have to do it!

If it doesn’t work for you it likely won’t have cost you much more than your time, but if you don’t try networking you’re missing out on one of the best forms of low-cost business development.

Don’t think you have to be anything other than yourself. People are interested in people more than products or services. Take a deep breath, clear your mind of any expectations or prejudices, and be yourself*!

2. Recognise the different types of networking events

Wherever you live, there will be a variety of networking events. Some are free to attend, some carry a small fee, and some require a commitment to a membership scheme. Different events work for different businesses, and – crucially – different personality types.

Are you a morning person or do you prefer an afternoon event? Perhaps you prefer to do your networking in a more social setting in the evening? Do you want to network weekly or monthly? Either way, you are likely to be able to find an event that works for you. For example:

Network Blaby takes place at 7.30am and is free as it’s organised by a local company (Bradgate Office Services) with minimal overheads. There are no speeches, pitches, or formal talks – just a relaxed atmosphere in a local coffee shop.

Business Buzz has networking events across the Midlands and charges a small fee for each meeting (currently £8, with tea & coffee included), with no joining or membership fees. It starts at 10am – a much friendlier time if, like me, you’re not a natural morning person! There is a short “7-second” round at 11am where you get to say who you are and what you do (with no elevator pitches or long speeches!) and the team is always welcoming and supportive of new members.

Beer & Business was an evening event organised by Paragon Sales Solutions.

BNI has networking groups across the world and is more formal than the others, working on a membership and referral basis. You pay a joining fee and a monthly fee and you attend one meeting per week. There is an industry lockout, meaning that there will be no one else from your industry in the room. There will only be one photographer, one graphic designer, one accountant etc. As part of your membership you are required to find referrals for other group members, and other group members will provide referrals to you too.

Need somewhere to start? I have a blog post listing networking events in Leicester & Leicestershire. Similarly, here is a list of networking events in Northamptonshire.  

The important thing is not to judge all networking events against one experience. Every room has a different atmosphere. Like most things in life, it’s about finding the one you feel most comfortable in.

3. Learn to read the room

Sometimes people are nervous about attending networking events because it involves meeting new people, and that can cause a little social anxiety. This is entirely normal.

It can feel a little awkward when you don’t know anyone and you’re lingering, waiting for an opportunity to talk to people. Attendees at any good networking event will be supportive and encourage newcomers into the conversation. I always make a point of encouraging people who look a little nervous to say hello, and I often use this as a barometer of friendliness when I attend a new event for the first time.

Be wary of busting in on people that are involved in intense or low-key conversations, and those with closed body language (i.e. with their backs to the rest of the group). It can be a sign that they’re unwelcoming and don’t want to talk to new people, but it’s usually a sign that they need a little privacy. Either way, find another place to linger – ideally near a group with open body language and someone making encouraging eye contact outside of the group.

It’s better to have two or three quality conversations than ten brief ones. The objective is to get to know people and build up the know–like–trust factor. You can’t do this by running in, pushing business cards in people’s faces, and then running out again. And yes, that does happen occasionally!

4. Utilise people that you know (but don’t stay with them too long!)

Once you’ve been networking for a while you may find yourself instinctively drawn towards people that you’ve already gotten to know. This is great for building up the know–like–trust factor, but it’s important to keep yourself open to other interactions too. After a while it becomes very easy to spend the entire meeting talking to people that you already know, so be wary of falling into this trap.

The flip side of this is that talking to people that you already know is a great way to naturally engage with a new face at an event. Spotted your networking BFF talking to someone new? Head over and say hello – it’s a great way to introduce yourself without being pushy.

Members of the Leicestershire Business Networking Group welcome the attendees as they arrivem, and hand out tickets above a table with a red tablecloth

5. Be selfless

Building on the last two points – once you’ve found your feet, keep your eyes open to help others. Play it forward, is it were.

Beyond that, make sure you listen to the people that you’re talking to. Really listen. Do they need a photographer? Do they want to know about other networking events in Leicestershire? If so, share with them what you know – like maybe they should speak to that photographer with the list of networking events on his website. What’s his name again? It all adds up and you’ll feel part of the community in no time.

6. Follow up on LinkedIn and in person

I always like to follow up on conversations by connecting with LinkedIn. I find LinkedIn a rare friendly online community, and because I have a terrible memory, I’m more likely to remember someone if they keep popping up on my feed.

Perhaps more importantly, remember to organise one-to-one meetings too. Business Buzz have their 3-2-1 principle. Each month they encourage you to talk to three people that you don’t know, arrange one-to-ones with two of them, and bring one new person to the next event. There’s a reason they have that system – it works! You can connect on a much deeper level in a one-to-one, be it on Zoom or (my preference) in person.

Keep an open mind. You might not need a person’s services and they may not need yours, but a strong, genuine connection between the two of you could lead to places that you had never even considered. So if someone suggests a one-to-one – take them up on it!

7. Recognise that it’s a long-term process

Finally, don’t expect instant results. For most people, it’s very unlikely that you’ll walk into a networking event for the first time and walk out with a new customer. Focus on building up the know–like–trust factor and understand that this will take time.

If your time is limited, once you’ve tried a few different networks, choose a couple that work for you and get yourself known as a regular to that group. This will give you familiarity with a core group of people- something that a scattergun approach can’t deliver. You can of course continue to attend other events, and you’ll likely see people that you recognise, but there is a definite benefit to being seen regularly in the same place. Familiarity can help build trust.

In summary

  • Give it a go.
  • Find a network that works for you.
  • Learn to read the room.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Be selfless.
  • Follow up.
  • Don’t expect instant results.
  • Be consistent.

But most importantly? Be you*.

*If you struggle with being confident in business environments, why not check out my other business Kind & Curious, where I help people with self-confidence using acting skills? I have a free taster session coming up on 2nd February at the International Arts Centre in Leicester.

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If you go to a networking event and run around the room handing business cards to everyone and only giving them a token level of attention, they’ll remember that you made them feel insignificant.

Would you do business with someone that made you feel insignificant?

By attending networking events regularly and connecting with the same faces on an ongoing basis, you can build a cheerleading squad for your business, but only if you make people feel valued.