7 straight As in Networking‡

To succeed in this current time of economic instability you might be having to rethink your approach to bringing in freelance or employed work and this may be taking you into uncomfortable new territory. Some people are naturally happy with networking and we all feel at home amongst our peers, the PHP community is especially friendly and weloming. However, going out in person into the marketing, sales and networking world to get new leads may well be out of your comfort zone, it was certainly outside mine.

So in the spirit of the season, here are my secrets to getting 7 straight A grades in face to face networking to help us all out in the New Year.

Advance planning
You will always have a couple of days at least before a conference, lunch, dinner, exhibition, workshop, seminar or get together to plan ahead. Use this time to focus yourself, what do you want out of this oportunity. The first answer might be a long term goal such as ‘more work’ but this is your time to figure out the steps you need to get there.

Find out who else may be going. Organisers may provide registration lists or try asking who will be there who could be interesting to talk to. If you book on line some events have attendee lists availble only to other attendees. Websites advertising events sometimes have forums and there’s always Twitter. You may be sick of hearing about Twitter but it is the one service that is bridging the gap between the technically minded and the marketing inclined. Recruiters, C*Os and business decision makers will not be found on irc.

Think up your agenda: of those attendees, how many do you want to talk to? Don’t expect to be able to talk to everyone, if you want to get really useful information, you won’t have time. What do you want to talk about and more importantly what do you want to find out? The event will be your oportunity to find out more about companies you want to target, who is best to approach and how they like to be contacted. Chances are the people you meet won’t always be the real decision makers but they can get you in with who is.

Prepare to be disappointed. Some people will register to attend simply to support an event and give it higher profile. They won’t actually be there on the day, but they will have given an email address, telephone number or web address when they registered that you could use to follow up.

Think of a few answers to questions you might get asked; mine were: how long have you been doing what you do, what do you specialise in, do you work locally, what is the favourite part of your working day?

If you haven’t got business cards or a name tag, get them. Not all events are well enough organised to provide name tags. A business card in a plastic bag with a safety pin just looks tacky – I’ve kept my phpNW holder so I never have to do that again!


Nothing old, nothing new…
T shirts and well worn converse boots work fine for developers and designers most of the time but, sorry to state the obvious, in the world of the suit you can only get away with it if you are already established, famous and known as eccentric. Since none of us have really got there and if we had we wouldn’t have to go to these sorts of things, making an effort is required. If you are used to working in the t shirt with your favourite saying* don’t go for a suit.

Yes that’s right – no suits… There is nothing more destracting for everyone than someone not comfortable in their own clothes and shoes. Wear a shirt, something with a collar, maybe a jacket or tidy fleece but nothing new. A new shirt straight out of the pack full of starch will make you itch, and me just watching you. A tie you can’t wait to get off will distract you from your questions, your purpose and you won’t relax. No new shoes either, or the ones you only bring out for weddings and funerals. Many networking events involve several hours stood up: circulating, viewing stands and moving between tables. Party feet were made for us girls who like to wear heels (of any height). Get a pair, really, pain is no help to anyone.

Nothing borrowed, nothing blue…
You’ve got an agenda, you’ve thought about what you want to ask, you’ve got clothes you’re comfortable in, so how are you going to interact?

Firstly be honest, you might not show everyone everything about yourself but what you do say or do, make sure it’s you. When you do make a connection you will want to keep it up.

Secondly, be positive. You might not have everything you want, you might really need a new customer or freelance contact but you’re already on your way to getting that by choosing to get out and meet new people, or current people in new ways. You will learn positive lessons from just attending, even if it is just how to survive the experience. Don’t moan though, everyone will start it and the evening will turn sour meaning nothing moves forward and no help for anyone.

Lastly, relax! Everyone else at the event will have once started from scratch too, may be wishing they were somewhere else with people they knew or is just having a bad day – we are all human!

As I’ve mentioned, many networking functions are standing affairs, though there will be seats available for dinners etc. Conversations work best if you are on the same level as the ‘target’. As I’m short I already have a disadvantage with taller people who have to crouch to my level to hear me. If I’m sat down it’s doubly difficult. There is also an intimidation issue if talking to someone who is seated, they one may feel dictated to or not on an equal footing in the conversation.

Tips for body language: both can sit for longer talks and as a signal for less interruption, but there’s less chance to get away to see others. Both can stand for shorter chats but don’t be surprised if you are interrupted. Luckily, many lunches and similar events will allow time for one-to-one sessions to be booked after the main event when you can buttonhole people for longer.

As well as physically being at the same level as people, we all need to be mentally aware of the level of the conversation. Overly technical in the wrong context will cause that familiar glazed expression but obviously over simplifying your interests or technical skills can be patronising. I’ve heard lots of people beginning a new topic with “I’m not sure how much you know about…” It’s given me instant feedback and an idea of the level at which to pitch myself. It can even give you a name to follow up: Oh, I let Dave deal with all that… Is one I’ve heard.

All face to face meetings are for one purpose, to come away with more knowledge than at the start. Attention is really important to pick up these things. Listening to someone else’s story tells you a lot about them, the way they say things and what they don’t say.

Being open minded also helps pick up more information, always remember people frquently have more than one ‘hat’. I didn’t dose off while someone told me about how her pyramid scheme worked and so I remembered to ask what else she did (residual income can never really be full time). I would never have found out she was a recruitment consultant with colleagues who specialised in IT if I hadn’t asked.
It helps not to be drunk too, dosing off happens that much easier…

Ad lib and ask questions

So networking isn’t really about who you know, but about who they know. The people you meet won’t be able to solve all your challenges in one go, but they will know people who can. Asking the right questions can open doors such as Who else do you know here? Are there any more of us web designers here then? Is this a regular event for you? Are you based locally?

Once you’ve relaxed and got ‘into’ an event it’s quite easy to go with the flow and learn answers to questions you hadn’t thought about asking. Don’t forget the thread of your own agenda but enjoy adapting it as the evening progresses!

Accumulate cards and Act on them

Always ask for a business card. Give them by all means but this is an oportunity for you to get some control. They can stuff your card into a pocket or the goodie bag and forget it. If you have their card you can use that information to follow up and contact them, seems easy really but most people forget.

A networking event goodie bag is also a contact gold mine. All those people you didn’t get chance to talk to may have a leaflet, card or pen in the goodie bag. I have a new potential client that I’ve never even met because their leaflet was in the goodie bag.

So you’ve survived your first evening, lunch, dinner or exhibition, but the work has only just begun: phone, email, followup, thank or check in with every person you spoke to. Send that CV you promised, or a link to your portfolio, be as good as your word and continue to act on it.

So there you go, my secrets to surviving an event with the ‘suits’:
Do some advance planning,
Think about your appearance and the attitude you want to portray
Decide on how to approach potential allies
Give them your time and attention
Ad lib and ask questions for an evening that develops
Accumulate: knowledge, more questions for the future
and contact information you can act on.

Have a Merry Festive Season and a positive 2009!

‡(sorry not the hardware and cables type)
*success means not having to wear a suit