As an introvert, networking events have always been the stuff of nightmares for me. I'm terrible with remembering the names of people I just met because I'm way too worried about having something to talk about next and—wait—is there something in my teeth? I've always hated the small talk and business jargon, and to be perfectly honest approaching random people just stresses me out.
Pushy sales tactics and a heap of business cards from momentary encounters put a bad taste in my mouth, not to mention the multitude of meaningless LinkedIn requests afterward that no one ever follows up. I never thought I'd be good at networking, and according to my understanding of what “networking” was, I didn't want to be.
Putting My Big Girl Pants On
When I started my business, I poured myself into my work and sharing weekly insights on branding and running a small business. The thing I didn't anticipate was the self-employed struggle of too much heads-down time doing the work and not enough human connection.
I'd already begun to define my niche, but an even more specific tone and type of work I enjoy most had begun to emerge. I knew I had to get out, meet more people locally, and somehow steer my business in the direction I felt drawn to go. So despite my strong aversion to it, I decided to try out some networking groups for the sake of my business and my sanity.
First I tried a networking group that met weekly and referred clients within their small chapter circle. While I appreciated the community aspect, the weekly meetings seemed far too demanding and I thought this referral system was very limiting. While it may work for other industries and trades, I believe creatives should be evaluated by the quality of their work and their ability to follow through, not their membership in a specific chapter.
If you genuinely connect with people, you'll never need to “network” again.
The next group I tried provided tailored networking connections over coffee a few times a month. I got to choose my own radius I was willing to travel within for the meetings, and would be matched up with two other people for each meeting. I loved the tailored aspect of these connections, and met a couple great folks but overall I knew these weren't my people.
Sure, this was a decent start. I was meeting new people and getting more comfortable with the chit chat, but I didn't really feel like any of it was going anywhere. I was beginning to get a bit discouraged until I began to see through the small talk and realized the common thread of the folks that really resonated with me in these groups.
Connecting the Right Way
What I learned through meeting all these different folks is that the real gems had several things in common.
- They were excited. Charisma can seem like a distant goal when you're an introvert, so it helps to reframe it as passion or excitement. These people were kind, positive folks who were genuinely excited about what they were doing, and about connecting with me.
- They were not only engaging, they were engaged. There's no bigger turn-off in a meeting than someone who puts their phone face-up on the table or checks it constantly. This immediately says that I'm not important to you—I don't deserve your full attention. These people not only kept their phones away, they actually listened. And not just in the waiting-for-their-turn-to-talk kind of way. They were consistently engaged and actively digging deeper into whatever we were discussing.
- We didn't just talk shop. As I mentioned, business jargon is not my favorite and people who only want to talk shop don't end up being very memorable. The ones I remember connected on other things too, whether it was dogs, vacations, or a tv show we both loved. We didn't just talk about work, we connected on life.
- They wanted to help. They'd ask what I was struggling with in my business, and they'd do their best to assist me. And not by selling their own services. They'd share some helpful resources, or connect me to a friend, or refer me to a business they'd worked with in the past and loved.
- They followed through. Finally, they actually did whatever they said they were going to do—whether it was connecting me to that friend or sharing that resource. They followed up and followed through.
The amazing yet frustrating thing about true, genuine networking is that it's not about selling yourself or what you do at all. It's about connecting with people in a genuine way, helping them out when you can, and staying connected so that you're someone they want to help or—when the time comes—hire.
The people with the qualities above are the ones I remember, and those are the ones I want to keep in touch with. Now I try to bring these tactics with me everywhere I go—shops, restaurants, conferences, even yoga class. Take it from me. If you genuinely connect with people, you'll never need to “network” again. Just follow these steps.
- Introduce yourself. Don't forget to bring your passion into the equation. People are much more excited to talk with people who are excited to talk to them.
- Focus on the other person. Really listen to what they're saying. Ask follow-up questions. Dig deeper.
- Identify their needs and struggles. What are they excited about? What are they struggling with? How can you help?
- Don't sell to them. This will extinguish any spark of relationship before you even have a chance to kindle it.
- Follow up and follow through. Reach out to them after and do what you said you'd do. Help them or introduce them to people that can help. Give them referrals. All these will make you the type of person they want to partner with.
- Connect people. Expand your community. The more you help others, the more you'll stand out in their mind as someone they remember and want to collaborate with. They'll also be more invested in helping you.
- Keep in touch. Don't just fade away after that first encounter. Check in periodically. Don't worry if the other person hasn't contacted you. Life happens and we're all busy. Be the person that reaches out and keeps that spark alive.
The term “mastermind” has become a bit of a buzzword. I felt like I needed this inner circle of like-minded folks when I first started my business, but I had no idea how to find them and didn't feel right paying to “find my tribe.” I decided to let it happen organically instead.
Several months into owning my own business, Bre from Rowan Made shared my work on her Instagram feed as a #followfriday kind of thing. I'd been following her work for years and just about died when this happened. I reached out via Instagram and we started commenting back and forth. Then we started tweeting one another. Pretty soon, we found out we had a ton in common and wanted to chat more so we became email pen pals. When that wasn't enough, we started having monthly skype dates to talk life and business. Now we chat regularly, and she's not only my business buddy but also a close friend.
All of this to say that while you can show up in Facebook groups and go to networking events and conferences, you never know where and when you'll find your business buddies. As far as I'm concerned, the best relationships happen organically. So don't try to force it. Show up, be yourself, and do your best to help people when you can. If the relationship is meant to grow it will, and your path together will develop from there.