Too many entrepreneurs I meet in my role as a business adviser still seem to believe networking is all about selling and convincing everyone that what you have will change the world.
While selling is obviously important, networking with peers and investors today is still about building relationships, listening to the needs of someone else, and suggesting a win-win opportunity. For example, if that person is an investor, listen for a background in technology or a focus on financial returns, before highlighting your vision to change the social culture.
If the peer is a potential co-founder, find out what complementary skills they could bring to your startup before wasting time for both of you, and missing a relationship, by pitching the product or technology. If your networking style and mindset are still focused on the hard-sell, push-marketing approach, it's time to take a close look at feedback, and your own frustration with the results.
The way to win today is to build relationships first, by listening and responding, whether it be in person or through social media, before kicking into full sales mode. Here are some techniques that work for me:
1. Focus on listening more than talking for the first five minutes.
Effective networkers are quick to empathize with other people, to understand their position and where they are coming from. Practice connective listening, and minimize your tendency to be defensive, go into problem-solving mode, or unwittingly tune them out until it's your turn.
2. Find common ground and engage them in that space.
Ask questions first to find what people or interests you might have in common, and then explore these at a personal level to build a positive relationship. Once a relationship is established, you will have their trust to listen to your mission and needs, and get the most positive feedback and interaction.
3. Lead with your achieved results rather than future aspirations.
Your goal is to inspire people with demonstrated abilities, which make them want a stronger relationship. Leading with problems or needs automatically makes most people wary of a commitment, and they see you as needing them, rather than think they would benefit from your relationship.
4. Make yourself memorable with a couple of personal anecdotes.
People remember positive personal stories, and these will make you unique from the many other people at most networking events. If possible, select stories that add value or highlight a comparable situation for the other person, giving you more credibility and interest.
5. Highlight instances where you have overcome adversity.
Don't hesitate to mention the positive lessons you have gleaned from challenges or unanticipated problems. If possible, relate these to similar situations in the lives of the people you meet. Have the courage to share your feelings, since shared feelings will strengthen any relationship.
6. Express gratitude for any insights and expressions of support.
Any act of gratitude or appreciation you express for feedback and advice will create a stronger bond and interest in continuing the relationship. An even more positive form of gratitude is offering to follow up on questions, make relevant people introductions, or pass along information.
7. Don't try to monopolize one person's attention or time.
Sometimes the most positive thing you can do is recognize that it's time for both of you to move on. Gather the information you need, exchange business cards, if appropriate, and politely say, "I'm sure you would like to do some mixing now. It's been a pleasure speaking to you."
8. Dress professionally and appropriately for the venue.
You only get one chance to make a great first impression in business, and what you wear is a large part of that impact. This does not mean that you need to wear the most expensive clothes, but networking is not the place to make a statement or appear to be defying authority.
9. Follow up with a connection via social media or a meeting.
Especially in this digital world of social media and virtual relationships, closing the loop on both sides is important. If you do your initial networking online, close the loop by suggesting a meeting at their office or over coffee. If you met at an event, make the digital connection to close the loop.
In my experience, a successful business today is still more about relationships than products. Whom you have on your team, both inside and outside the company, and how you interact with them, are the critical elements. Networking is where and how most of these relationships start, so don't push or ignore the people you meet, either in person or online.