Taking the fear out of networking

Ex-european director of external communications at Coca-Cola Enterprises, Debbie Spitz, shares her tips on how to get the best from, and even enjoy, networking.

Networking; love it or hate it, it’s a must in our industry.

I used to think networking meant grabbing a glass of wine and making small talk with strangers (neither of which I particularly enjoyed). But the reality is that networking is something we are doing all the time: that briefing with a journalist – is, at least in part, networking; meeting up with an old colleague - that’s networking; and even a conversation at the gym can result in a meaningful connection - you really can network anywhere.

Until recently, I’d never really enjoyed it, now I actually like challenging myself to make these meaningful connections whether at yoga or collecting my daughter from nursery. And my husband is great at getting me to do things he likes by positioning it as an opportunity to network!

I’ve found an approach that has worked for me – and it’s proved invaluable. It helped me get my most recent job and it’s also enabled me to help others. Most recently, I reconnected with old friends at a school alumni event and made some new friends at a former colleague’s leaving drinks.

Here are my seven top tips for networking. I hope they can help other reluctant networkers, but let’s see if together we can get this list to 20.

* Be up front about what you want. Whether it’s a job, a recommendation or just some advice, tell friends in the industry – and those who aren’t. Opportunities can come from anywhere and you’d be amazed just how happy people are to help and share their experiences. And even if they can’t help you there and then, you’ll be front of mind when they can

* Help a friend. It’s often easier to talk about friends than about ourselves. Think of it as an opportunity to help someone else out. If you can create a connection for a friend, you’ll feel better about yourself and these conversations will become more comfortable

 * Two ears, one mouth. Use them in those proportions. Some useful advice from my Mum, and while I haven’t always stuck to this, listening is one of the strongest tools in a communicator’s arsenal. Show genuine interest in other peoples’ agendas, and think about how you can help them

 * Prepare. After all every conversation should have a purpose. When you meet someone, find out what interests and drives them. It will help start the conversation and your interactions will be more productive

 * Follow up. An initial meeting is just that – the beginning. Make a few notes on every new connection you make and follow up afterwards. You might just say you enjoyed meeting them, but you could send an article that might interest them, or if you have more ground to cover, invite them to continue the conversation

 * Be brief and be gone. Respect other peoples’ time by keeping your meetings to just a few minutes (unless you’ve booked a specific slot in their diary). They have other commitments too

 * See that guy standing on his own? Talk to him. Connections can come from the most unexpected places and you’re not the only one feeling awkward. He’ll be grateful that you’ve made the first move and as your confidence grows, you can challenge yourself to introduce him to someone else in the room, growing your network further

Debbie Spitz is a member of the PRWeek Mentoring Project.

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