Successful entrepreneurs know that networking is not a numbers game. It’s not about how many business cards you pass out or collect. It’s not about how many products you can sell or whom you can instantly impress, exploit or schmooze to get what you want.
Proper networking is a gradual process of making genuine connections with people and cultivating those relationships for the long term. Here are five ways to take the stress out of networking, expand your sphere of influence and form solid, mutually beneficial relationships.
1. Give with no expectations in return.
The most effective networking takes place when you are willing to tithe your social capital. In other words, look for opportunities to be of service to others instead of thinking about how others can meet your needs. Train your ears to hear a problem so you can present a solution.
For example, if a colleague or client mentions that she needs a good painter, you might not know one, but someone in your network probably does. Do a little research and pass along the information. She will remember you and be forever grateful for your kind and unsolicited efforts.
2. Network with one person at a time.
Instead of spending small amounts of time with a lot of people, spend more time with a smaller number of carefully chosen people. You may find it comforting to know that the strength and longevity of your relationships depend more on the quality and far less upon the quantity of your connections.
Stop believing you have to meet everyone in the room. You don’t. At the next networking event, introduce yourself to someone who is sitting alone. More often than not, it’s the short, casual, one-on-one conversations that turn into potential business opportunities.
3. Approach people who are different from you.
It’s natural to gravitate toward people who are just like us, but you do yourself a disservice when you socialize with the same people all the time. Don't be guilty of "clustering." This is when people who know one another get into groups, either sitting or standing, while they pretty much ignore everyone else around them. Staying in familiar territory defeats the purpose of networking so expand your horizons and occasionally break away from those you know or see every day.
4. Share a personal story or two.
Most of us have a habit of launching into business talk too soon, so take time to form a connection that has some substance. The best way to do this is by telling your story or by trying to get others to reveal their stories.
Stories are the most basic tool for connecting us to one another. People attend, remember, and are transformed by stories. Many of us grew up listening to stories passed from generation to generation by our parents or grandparents. Stories have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet, and wallets in the storyteller’s intended direction. Share a little bit about yourself -- how you became interested in your profession, who inspired you to start your own business, or where you grew up.
5. Listen more than you talk.
As the saying goes, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Focus more on the other person and less on yourself and you will be perceived as being the most engaging person in the room.
Start out by asking the right questions and then listen to the other person’s response. Some of my favorite questions include: “What do you like to do in your spare time?” and “What motivated you to start your own business?” Most people enjoy talking about themselves, and these kinds of questions prompt people to open up. In time, they might even reveal their background, motivations, philosophy and challenges. Even though you might not agree with everything the person says, all you have to do is be a good listener.
Keep your networking efforts simple. Become interested in others, find out what matters to them, and then center your conversations on their interests and priorities. When you are genuine and sincere, your network (and eventually your net worth) will organically grow.