The art of networking

The holidays are approaching, and this is the time of year when we’re all out doing a lot of socialising – hopefully relishing the season.

Business-wise, when you’re freelance – especially if you’re a solo creative – getting out there and meeting others is so important. It encourages us to maintain balance if we work from home, and to feel a part of something bigger. Above all, it can help us to get new clients.

Many people see networking as a chore, or a prompt to lie down and take a seriously long nap. But it really doesn’t have to be like that.

Look at it this way: cold emailing and calling can be even more of a depressing affair. We’re contacting complete strangers and expecting at least some level of rejection.

So, why do that when you could be forging genuine, meaningful connections which can actually lead somewhere, and enjoying yourself in the process?

At its best, networking is an exercise in skilful communication. Here’s the first of a two-part guide to making networking work for you.

Do your research
These days, there is a wealth of online and offline networking opportunities to follow: the possibilities are numerous.

The key is to decide why you want to network, and how you’re going to go about it.

Decide why to network

Do you want to be part of a supportive network of likeminded people where you can discuss, for example, freelancing and business strategy, or join a mastermind group?

Do you want to find a gendered group, where you’re connecting with people of the same sex for support and discussion of the issues affecting you? (Mumpreneurs and women in business-type groups are good examples of this.)

Do you want to build your knowledge base, connect with colleagues to talk industry trends, new technology, business operation in your sector?

Do you want information and advice on a topic that you aren’t expert in, but need to know in order to work on your business? For example, websites, social media, marketing, PR?

Do you want to build your referral network outside your industry, make new contacts, find potential new clients?

To do this you will need to work out who your tribe is, who your potential clients are, their sectors and where they hang out.

For example, the professions (accountants, lawyers, etc.) are usually to be found at general business networking events, as they’re looking for new clients.

Corporate types are more likely to be found at formal professional events: Chambers of Commerce, Federation of Small Businesses, membership-only referral networking, industry expos and breakfast meetings.

Identify your purposes

New media, digital, tech, creatives and start-ups are often to be found at more informal events, as well as general business networking.

Identify your purposes for networking. Draw up lists, then hit the internet to find the groups and events, both online and offline, for you. Then, try them out! Some may not be right for you, and that’s fine.

When you do find the gatherings that work, the connections you make can be really valuable. So be ready to show up regularly, get stuck in and start conversations.

Check attendance lists
Some networking events release attendance lists beforehand. This can be incredibly useful, as you can look up the people who will be there, check their sector and find out more about them, as well as getting a feel for the overall demographics of the event.

Your introductions will be all the better for it, because you’ll know something about the other person beforehand and can open a conversation with that information.

For example, something like ‘I saw your work on X recently, your campaign was really good!’, rather than hauling out that tired old chestnut: ‘So, what do you do…?’

They’ll be flattered that you know about them, and warm to you.

Dress for success
When you’ve worked out which networking events you want to attend, the next step is to think about how to present yourself to fit in.

What should you wear? Again, for corporates and the professions, it’s generally accepted that you will be swimming in a sea of suits.

If the meet-up is less formal, then you can gauge it. Smart casual is always a good place to operate from, it strikes a nice balance. It’s not too formal, and it doesn’t make any assumptions that ultra-casual is acceptable either.

Dress well

It goes without saying: dress well. (But you don’t need me to tell you how to look fantastic. As a seasoned creative, you already have bags of style!)

Seriously though, knowing the sectors being represented and the type of event is crucial.

For example, if you’re networking with the gaming community and turn up in a shiny expensive suit, double takes might be likely. Conversely, if you’re networking with lawyers, jeans and a hoodie could bring you some odd looks. You might even be mistaken for one of their clients…

Be yourself
Some feel that networking that is so difficult because they perceive a need to project a persona.

This is partly true – in so far as professionalism matters – but in reality, the best conversations at networking are often to be had between two people who aren’t putting any pressure on themselves, or each other, to be something they’re not. Polished doesn’t have to be slick.

If you go into a room armed with a mindset that encourages you to be inauthentic, not only will it put people off, but you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. However, it is important to be confident.

Project success
When you meet someone for the first time, have you ever noticed that nervousness can be a real conversation killer? From sweaty palms and limp handshakes to awkward silences, it puts barriers in the way of relating, projects uncertainty, and makes it so much harder for people to get to know each other.

If you’re socially shy, perhaps it can help to understand that meeting other people in this kind of situation is not actually threatening. Nobody is here to judge you. And yes, you do have as much right to be here as anyone else!

Overcome social anxiety

Networking is actually quite a good place to overcome social anxiety, because the room isn’t a hostile audience. If anything, everyone is there to forge positive connections and make them work. So, the event is already on your side.

As for success, I’m not talking about material stuff: the £100k you made this year, or the fact that you just bought a new Benz. That isn’t interesting. Success is projected as much in warmth and confidence, being open and engaging with others, as anything else.

Another thing to bear in mind is to avoid discussing the lows in your business, unless that is actually the topic for the meeting (such as a mastermind group).

As freelancers we all experience feast or famine at times, but in a networking context where we’re making new contacts who might convert into clients, launching into sob stories about how we’ve not had any work for weeks, we’re living off beans on toast and are worried about paying the bills is really not a good idea.

I know that sounds obvious, but it’s true. Avoid being negative about your business or yourself. You’re a great freelancer, so project success.

Nonetheless, it is possible to go too far. Which leads us to the next point…

Don’t sell
This is definitely rule no. 1 of networking. It’s a good idea to be sensitive and gauge the situation.

If someone says they’re looking for a particular service and you’re in the right place at the right time, by all means relate how what you do might be relevant, and how you might be able to help.

These days, it’s fashionable to have a one-line description of what you do to hand. Current practice – which admittedly has become a tad overused – is to say something like: ‘I help people do/achieve/make/sell/create x….’

Watch the signs

However, networking is a soft approach: it’s about natural conversation. Building relationships and getting to know people is the main motivation, rather than pushing your offer. Your business card should be the last thing that comes out, not the first.

Watch the signs, read how the person you’re talking with is reacting. If the cues aren’t there, don’t do it – and generally sound advice is not to do it anyway.

Of course, there are networking organisations out there with a more robust approach, requiring you to commit to paying for membership, give presentations about your business, and show up regularly with referrals. These opportunities are direct and tend to be more useful for businesses such as trades, less so for creatives.

In part 2 I’ll be talking about skilful connecting, how to build relationships and keep them going. Happy networking!

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