How do I keep networking in 2021, when most people and events are still ‘virtual’ but some might become ‘real world’?
It’s an important question – your networking skills, and your ability to connect with new people and mainitain and deepen your relationships with existing people are some of the key factors that will help you to navigate the ‘new normal’.
While traditional networking skills such as the ability to work the room are as important as they’ve ever been, and will remain a part of my networking skills workshop and training sessions, there are some key things to focus on in 2021.
I’ve boiled them down into my Most Important Networking Skills for 2021 top tips for you:
- Get started – there’ll never be a better time to network. It’s not complicated – just email, pick up the phone or send someone a private message on whatever social media they use, asking to connect with them. There are fewer ‘gatekeepers’ than ever, and you can meet people in 5 different countries in a single morning. Don’t waste this time, you may never get this opportunity again.
- Use as many ‘platforms’ as possible – step away from the email comfort zone and be more active on LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Zoom, Twitter etc … – one of the ‘secrets’ of networking is to be where your audience is, rather than waiting for them to come to you. Take this time to review and refresh your professional social media accounts (I dedicate 30 minutes a week to updating and tweaking my LinkedIn profile, for example).
- Be prepared (but not over-prepared) for obvious questions. Everyone – absolutely everyone – you network with will ask you ‘So, what do you do?’. You should be ready for this question with a natural, easy answer that’s neither over-scripted and artificial, nor improvised on the spot (honestly, you’re not as good as improvising as you think you are. Neither am I – let’s not disappoint each other here!)
- Cut out the waffle – online networking is very different to a ‘coffee chat’ – be clear about what you offer, and what you need.
- Send interesting invitations. This is such a great time to meet that dream client, potential employer, god-like guru and so on. Just like you, they’re stuck in front of a computer screen for a lot of the day, and this means that many people are much more open to connections than ever before – there’s no travel time involved, and the nature of online meetings means that a ’30-minute chat’ really is a 30-minute chat. This is making many people much less guarded about the people they’ll connect to. To really make this work, make sure that your initial invitation is interesting and useful – rather than ‘I’d love to chat to you, do you have time for a virtual coffee?’ It’s better to write ‘I noticed that you wrote recently about X, and I’d love to chat to you about how you see that working as people work more from home. Do you have 30 minutes for a virtual coffee, as I’m sure there are several areas we’d find interesting to chat about’. Equally, depending on your personal style, you can be interesting but informal ‘As we’re in the same industry, I thought it might be good to chat, have a shoulder to cry on and share some experiences …’
- Attend ‘events’ – Both online and ‘real-world’ and don’t worry if they’re not always your ‘target’ events – it can be really useful just to keep practising the skills of making small talk and meeting people, and in fact is often easier when the event is not a crucial one for you – you’ll be more relaxed and authentic.
- Ask more interesting questions: This has always been true in networking – one of my golden rules is ‘If you ask boring questions, you get boring answers’. Ask questions focused on the other person’s world, and think of open questions, rather than closed ones which get a one-word repsonse.
- Practise listening more than speaking: This (obviously) follows on from the rule above, and is particularly important online, partly because constnatn interruptions make for an awkward and stilted conversation, and partly because all the focus is on your face, so even the slightest flicker that you’ve stopped listening is easy to spot!
- Think ‘value’ and ‘long-term’, rather than ‘transactional’. Bad networkers think of networking in zero-sum terms – it’s a way for them to get something, and that’s all. But it’s so much more useful, pleasant and interesting to think of networking as a chance to grow value which never existed between people who had never previously met.
think of networking as a chance to grow value which never existed between people who had never previously met
- Think outside ‘digital’. When was the last time you got a hand-written invitation? Or received a post-event gift in the post? In a world where everyone is digital, sometimes going ‘old school’ can really help you t stand out and maintain a connection.
- Be specific about what you need: This is a great time for getting referrals, recommendations and contacts. If you’d like to be connected someone, or get a piece of advice or some help, be clear about that – people are busy, so make it easy for them to help you – don’t make them think!
- Be clear that you’d like to help:Let people know that you’re happy to help – just ask them what they need “How can I help you?” is a magic sentence. But don’t trust your memory – if you’ve promised to help, then write it down!
- Remember that we’ll all be a bit ‘rusty’ as the world opens up. As you start thinking of returning to ‘real’ events, be kind to yourself and others – many of us haven’t practised ‘small-talk’ for ages. Some people might be feeling nervous about being in the room, and what ‘personal space’ means will probably change. We’re not used to standing up for a couple of hours anymore, and some of us might even have to hunt out proper shoes for the first time in more than a year! It’ll all be a bit strange, so don’t expect too much, and be as empathetic as possible.
- Follow-up: If you don’t follow-up then there’s no point networking in the first place! My rule-of-thumb here is to always think of giving value before asking for it. Don’t ask immediately for a ‘quick coffee’, offer to give help first, for example. Think of how you can offer someone a useful connection, or recommend a book, or send a relevant webpage. And remember follow-up is a procvess, not a one-off event. You don’t need to hound people, but don’t be afraid of keeping in touch, at least a couple of times a year.