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There's an Art to Networking

There's an Art to Networking

By Derek Dickow, originally featured in SBAM's FOCUS Magazine

I believe we’re one handshake away from meeting the person who can change the course of our career forever. As someone who’s attended thousands of events, I’ve learned networking goes far beyond small talk and the exchange of business cards. Your ability to prepare, connect and follow up is what takes you from a beginner to a master in the art of networking. I’ve developed a successful strategy to help professionals at any stage in their career.

For those having trouble identifying where or how to expand their professional network, I recommend researching local chambers, cultural institutions and nonprofits that attract the type of people you’re looking to meet. These organizations have an online calendar or e-newsletter promoting their events. Use this as your guide and identify an event worth your time. Be selective when choosing an event and consider time, resources and money involved in attending an event.

Here are four ideas to consider the next time you attend an event:

First, think of every event, regardless of size, in three distinct parts: before, during and after. This breakdown allows us to make a plan of action to get the most out of every networking setting. Before attending an event, research everything about the sponsors, speakers and attendees. Then identify three targets before and find out what projects or charities they’re working on and passionate about.

Quality research will likely take 45 minutes to an hour for each target. This is the necessary investment to build genuine relationships and will allow conversation to flow more easily, sparing you from unproductive small talk. Meeting people serendipitously in between sessions is great; however, staying focused on your targets will lead to your desired results. Keep your set goals and specific reasons for attending this event in mind and allow your research to help you stay on task.

Second, to ensure you meet your intended targets, reach out to them before the event and get their confirmation to schedule (by sending a calendar invite) time to meet and shake their hand formally. You should never ask for more than fifteen minutes for an introduction for this type of touchpoint and make sure your calendar invite is specific with time and location.

This short meeting serves to develop a quick rapport and helps to transition into a productive meeting next time. Since you’ve done some research on the prospect, be prepared to ask a few questions. Instead of small talk, formulate questions to drive the conversation and demonstrate you’ve done your research, are serious and appreciative of their time.

Thirdly, the most common mistake is approaching prospects from a “me” perspective and passing out business cards within a minute of meeting someone. Thinking only about what you can gain, or what this person can do for you, are other examples of networking mistakes. You should qualify your targets and ask about their pain points first. Ask the prospect who they’re looking to meet and who’s an ideal client. Consider the value proposition you bring to a new contact and exactly how you can help them reach their goals, then ask for their contact information to follow up.

I’ve found the greatest value you can bring to a new relationship is the ability to introduce qualified and potential leads to a new prospect. I connect three or four new leads to a prospect before I ask for anything. This type of “give before take” attitude is how you should approach networking. You’re offering your two most valued assets, time and your relationships, and depositing value into the prospect before asking for anything. This helps to build trust and likability and will separate you from good to great.

The Breakfast Meeting is Business 101

Finally, after the event, it’s crucial to move quickly in the pursuit of building lasting relationships. Reaching out to invite them to breakfast is ideal for many reasons. I recommend breakfast because it’s early, never more than an hour and everyone needs breakfast. I find that lunch or dinner are longer investments and reserved for a higher level of prospect and deeper relationship building. I’ve also found breakfast is easier to schedule, especially if you’re meeting a CEO or a high level contact.

Take this time not to present your accomplishments (or name drop—the worst!), but rather to learn about the person sitting across from you and what their goals are. Don’t be afraid to ask non-business related questions. In fact, I talk little business at a breakfast introductory meeting. I drive the discussion to focus on family, their culture, their education, their interests (such as philanthropy, sports, travel, music, etc.) and how they chose their vocation. Finding things in common will strengthen your relationship early on.

Towards the end I’m asking about their business and who
they’re looking to meet. I take copious notes and make e-intros when I get back to my office. I pay the bill 99 out of 100 times because I’m inviting them. That’s my culture and that’s what we do.

The Prospect. Always the Prospect.

Keep in mind the person you’re approaching has their own goals, objectives and obstacles. To master this networking strategy, you must identify what’s important to them and add value to their goals. A successful networker does this by listening first, problem solving second and making qualified introductions third. People will recognize your thoughtfulness and be willing to work with you if you get to know them personally and are authentic about helping them reach their goals.

Derek Dickow is the founder of Steward Media, a political & public relations firm, and is passionate about helping people in his network. He shares his strategy on “The Art of Networking” to various organizations and his team creates networking opportunities for political leaders, CEOs and professional service providers.

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