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As someone who grew up in poverty and in a blue-collar home, I didn’t think of networking as a tool that was available to me. Quite honestly, I hadn’t given the topic much thought until I reflected upon the life of my mother after she lost her battle with breast cancer. While I did not have the financial means, I did have the personal determination and the intuition of a mother who in retrospect, was a skilled networker. What she lacked in formal education, she made up for with street smarts and a PhD equivalent in emotional intelligence. By studying her life and by conducting my own research, I realized that there was indeed a method to the art of networking that went well beyond the business card exchange and the cocktail parties. To test my hypothesis, I interviewed many successful people and they too, confirmed the importance of networking.
So why do so many professionals fear networking? From stranger anxiety to pressure from the boss — the reasons are numerous. Regardless of the source, here are some tips for succeeding at networking.
Develop a strategy Treat networking like a business initiative. Create a plan. For example, you may want to increase sales by 15%, lay the ground work for the transition to your next career move, deepen relationships with others in your organization or increase your knowledge of a particular topic. Determine the outcome that you would like for your strategy and write it down. Before your next event, determine what would be a good outcome.
Reframe your thinking Everyone with whom you interact is a potential actor in your future success. Treat them as such. Examine how you spend your time and with whom. Look for opportunities to get to know your colleagues better and supplement that with external opportunities to get to know others. Visualize success! Instead of thinking about the people you don’t know, think about the opportunities for learning about others. Visualize achievement of the business objective that you have established for yourself.
Prepare and practice Until you increase your comfort level, it’s okay to network with a familiar colleague by your side, but you must move beyond the familiar. Prior to attending a networking event, practice how you will introduce yourself. I’m a big fan of practicing in the mirror. By doing some upfront work, you can reduce your anxiety and ensure a smooth delivery of your business card and your message.
Listen Use the art of inquiry to take the pressure off of you. Think through the questions you will ask others. Do some research upfront and arm yourself with interesting questions based on the people you are likely to meet. As you listen, identify those individuals who are aligned with your plan and with those with whom you want to stay connected.
Relax. Breathe. Smile.
Juliette Mayers is the author of The Guide to Strategic Networking and President & CEO of Inspiration Zone LLC. Follow her on Twitter, @JulietteMayers.