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The Suave Professional's Guide to Networking Success

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Many people assume that you have to be good at networking to be successful at it. While some people are naturally talented at small talk, seasoned entrepreneurs know that networking requires more than a smooth elevator pitch.

Some people approach networking with the belief that it’s important to know a lot of people. I agree with my wise granny Maitland Johnson who said, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know."

Networking is not a numbers game. It doesn’t matter how many business cards you pass out or whom you can instantly impress. Instead, successful networking is the process of fostering friendships and cultivating genuine connections with clients, colleagues and peers.

Often, those who talk the most are the least successful networkers. Effective listening is a much better approach. To apply the 80/20 rule to networking, spend 80 percent of your time focused on the person with whom you’re speaking. Keep your sales pitches and self-promotion to a minimum -- to just about 20 percent of the conversation. 

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1. Don’t talk at people.

Instead, speak with them. Some networkers approach others in an almost predatory manner. Not unlike what happens to other creatures in the animal kingdom, when people feel like they’re being hunted, they flee. Don’t think of networking as self-promotion. Instead, focus on how you can better connect with those in your business community.

People who attempt to exploit networking events will find their tactics are ineffective and self-defeating. Alternatively, those who seek out chances to be of service to others will quickly expand their sphere of influence and form mutually beneficial business relationships.

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2. Spend time with fewer individuals.

Unless it’s a speed networking event, don't try to hop from one conversation to another in a matter of minutes. The first five minutes of a conversation at a networking event usually involve introductions and polite small talk. Only after you spend some time with someone can you discover his or her true personality and interests.

When you take the time to truly connect with someone, you begin to form the foundation of a professional relationship. The strength and longevity of your business relationships will depend more on the quality of your connections than the quantity. You might find your efforts more effective if you choose to speak to two or three individuals instead of 20.

3. Seek out diverse connections.

You do yourself a disservice by networking with the same group of people every time. At networking events, it’s common to see clusters of professionals chatting and often these individuals already know one other. When you socialize with individuals you already know and ignore everyone else, you lose out on the opportunity to form new connections.

Purposefully split off from the group if you attend a networking event with others. Interact with someone you don’t know or might not have ordinarily met.

Break out of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to someone new. Deliberately look for professionals in a different industry or social group. These individuals may help you develop new ideas and discover a broader range of opportunities.

4. Focus on conversational currency.

A common networking mistake is talking about business too soon. Instead, take time to establish rapport and form a connection of substance.

Stories help people connect to one another by engaging the senses. Even in a business setting, stories have the power to capture hearts and minds. Spend 80 percent of a conversation trying to encourage another person to reveal his or her stories and 20 percent telling your own.

The questions that people tend to ask at networking events these days have become so common they feel canned and inauthentic. You’ll likely receive a bland response if you ask something like “What do you do?”

To stand out from the crowd, avoid the usual topics. Ask unique open-ended questions to encourage a person to share a personal story. A question like “Whom do you most admire?” can reveal someone’s background, philosophy and motivation.  

With a little bit of patience and practice, you'll build your social capital, expand your sphere of influence and form solid, mutually beneficial business and personal relationships.

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