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Professional Networking Skills: Guide to How to Network Effectively

Professional Networking Skills: Guide to How to Network Effectively

I have met relatively few professionals who claim to enjoy networking. For most, it’s a chore at best; a nightmare at worst. Yet the professional benefits of networking are huge. And there’s really nothing to fear.

By the way, a quick word about the title of this article: ‘Professional Networking Skills’

I don’t mean to make you a professional networker. I’m not even sure that’s a thing – and it certainly doesn’t sound like a socially useful role. What we will look at here is the networking skills that a professional like you will need, to enhance your career and open up opportunities.

So, let’s look at what I will cover in this article…

Professional Networking Skills: Guide to How to Network Effectively

Contents

We’ll go over seven aspects of networking…

  1. Why Network? The Benefits of Networking for Professionals
  2. Confidence: Be Confident to Network
  3. Own the Room: Your Networking Playing Field
  4. Conversation: The Process of Networking
  5. Rapport: The Networking Dance
  6. Reciprocation: The Ultimate Reason for Networking
  7. Avoid these Six Networking Mistakes

Let’s get started!

Why Network? The Benefits of Networking for Professionals

I won’t labor this point, because you probably know you ‘ought to’ be networking more, for the sake of your long-term career. For me, the three principal benefits for a Project Manager are:

  1. Career Progression
    The connections you build through networking can help you in the future. They can advise you, reveal opportunities, make you offers, or advocate for you.
  2. Help with Problems
    Whatever challenges you are facing now – or ay face in the future – a wider network of contacts can give you more angles on resolving the issues facing you.
  3. Immediate Opportunities
    Opportunities rarely come from nowhere. And they frequently come when you make connections. They may be when you connect two people you know, when you join one piece of knowledge to another, or when you make a new connection with someone you had never met.

Of course there are more benefits to networking. And, if you have other roles (now or in the future) beyond project management, these may have additional primary benefits too.

Let us know in the comments below, if you think I have missed anything important.

Confidence: Be Confident to Network

I guess the common dislike of or discomfort with networking most-often stems from a lack of confidence. Those new people can seem intimidating – especially when you have a dose of Imposter Syndrome!

Let me introduce you to the two primary ways to build your confidence for networking:

  • Physiological (that is, how you use you body)
  • Mental (that is, how you use your mind)

Physiological Confidence-building

Mind and body are connected. ‘Move the mind: move the body’ said my Aikido teacher. So, why not change your mindset by changing how you use your body?

Think about how you stand or sit when you are not feeling at all confident. You slouch, slump, cower. Now think about the postures you hold when you are confident, enthusiastic, excited:

  • Upright
  • Open
  • Animated

If you adopt this kind of body language it will shift your hormone balance and the level of confidence you have.

Before Going into a Networking Situation…

Take a couple of minutes to stand tall, look up, wave your arms around, or do some jumping jacks (star jumps or side-straddle hops). Get yourself moving, upright, and open. This will loosen you up and get your blood flowing. And it will also relax you.

Mental Confidence-building – Self-talk

When we are feeling bad about ourselves, it often arises from ‘negative self-talk. That is, we tell ourselves:

  • how we hate networking
  • that we are poor at conversation
  • how inadequate we are
  • That people won’t like us

I’ve done it plenty of times, and I know you have too. But YOU are in control of that voice in your head. So why bot choose positive things to say to yourself? Think about what you would say to a close colleague or a friend. You wouldn’t beat them up about being rubbish! No, you’d say things like:

  • ‘Networking is a great opportunity’
  • ‘You are great at asking questions and listening to people’
  • ‘Your knowledge and experience have earned you your place here’
  • ‘Lots of people like you – and lots more will when they get to know you’
  • You are a good person, with valuable skills’

It is surprising how much difference it makes when you change the dialogue in your head.

If you want to learn more, we have a full article on Confidence for Project Managers.

Own the Room: Your Networking Playing Field

You don’t expect star players to hang around the fringes of the playing field or court, hoping to not get noticed. So, why should you do that? When you enter the room, do so positively. Walk in boldly, with your head held high. Look around and find a good place to start off. Maybe not right in the center: but certainly not clinging to a wall.

Position

The best place to go is where people are ‘waiting to be engaged’. Look for the people who want you to rescue them and go and introduce yourself.

Or maybe there is someone you want to speak with. Approach them with a smile, catch their eye, and say ‘hello’.

And, if there is something of interest in the room, then this is where some of the best conversations will be. So head there.

Do you get the picture. When you want to network, go where there is some action!

Poise

I use the term poise to cover all of the postural and gestural characteristics of a confident networker. Aim to be:

  • Upright
  • Symmetrical
  • Square on to the person you are talking with
  • Looking them in the eye
  • Smiling
  • Animated

While in small quantities, none of these is a serious issue, as far as possible, avoid or reduce:

  • Twisting your body
  • Crossing your legs when standing
  • Fidgeting
  • Crossing your arms
  • touching your face

Presence

Presence is that hard-to-define quality of someone who makes an impact on the room and the people in it. But, unless you are aiming for that high-charisma, room-dominating presence, the method is simple. To have presence, you must be present.

That is, give your whole attention to whomever you are with:

  • When you come into the room, pay attention to the room
  • If you are speaking to one person, give them ALL of your attention
  • And, when you are in a wider conversation, pay attention to everyone, but with a little more for the person who is speaking at the time

Whatever you do, avoid letting your attention wander, to:

  • what you’d rather be doing
  • who else is in the room
  • where you need to go next

It is not that hard to spot when someone’s mind is elsewhere.

Conversation: The Process of Networking

Here’s my top tip for great networking. I call it ‘Fascinating Facts’.

Make it your mission to find out something new and interesting from every person you meet – and from as many people as possible. This way, you can:

  • transform networking into a fun game
  • learn lots of new stuff
  • focus on asking questions and listening to answers – people will love that
  • talk about things the other person finds interesting – they love that even more!

Preparing for Conversation

You will sometimes have the opportunity to prepare for a conversation in advance.  You may be meeting local stakeholders you have heard about, potential suppliers you want to do business with, or new colleagues, whom you want to get on with.  If you can, prepare beforehand.

Ask colleagues about the people you’ll meet. Or look them up, to find out what you can about them and their interests.  Also, find out what you can about their organization, what it does, and the jargon and hot topics that are commonplace in their industry.  LinkedIn is a brilliant asset for this.

So too are websites or blogs if they have one, their organization’s website, any industry or trade association websites, blogs, trade magazines, leaflets, and of course, other social media. 

Getting Started

Forget ‘networking’ and all the pressure that creates. Instead, focus on the one skill that will not only give lots of interesting things to speak about, but create real human contact that builds respect, liking and, eventually, friendship: chat.

When you go to a networking event, separate from colleagues. If you don’t, you are more likely to chat with them.  

If you find the thought of going up to someone a little unsettling, think about how good you feel when someone comes up to you and breaks the ice by introducing themselves.   They seem to be in control. They seem confident and at ease.  The chances are that they aren’t: they probably just decided to go for it. 

If you do that and introduce yourself to me, it will be you who will come across as confident and in control.  I will respond warmly, out of relief from feeling isolated in the group.

So, Try this…

When you enter a room full of people you barely know, pick someone at the far end who is on their own. Stand up straight and walk slowly and purposefully towards them. Acknowledging anyone you pass, whom you have met before, with a polite smile, a nod of your head, and ‘hello’

When you get to them, make them feel special and introduce yourself at the same time, with:

‘Hello, I couldn’t help noticing you, I am …’

Ideally, pick something flattering to notice.  Better yet, before you approach them, find out who they are:

‘Hello, Jamie, I’ve been hoping to speak with you.  I am …’

If these don’t seem appropriate, one opening gambit will always work: where you are.  Either comment on where you both are, or ask them for their thoughts about it.  This works because it is instantly something you have in common and creates immediate rapport.

Conversation Starters

In my book, How to Speak so People Listen, I list 9 great conversation starters. The ‘you principle’ tells us that you should focus on the other person, rather than on yourself. And questions stimulate answer, which is why 6 of the 9 take that form. Here they are:

  • Make an observation about where we are.
    ‘There is a good turn-out today, for a mid-week event.’
  • Ask me something about where we are or some specific feature of it.
    ‘Do you know anything about the history of this building; it’s so impressive.’
  • Ask me about how I came here.
    ‘This place is nice and central; how did you come here tonight?’
  • Ask me what drew me to come here.
    ‘What appealed to you most about this event?’
  • Express an interest in speaking with me.
    ‘I couldn’t help noticing you and wondered if you would mind if I introduce myself?’
  • Make an observation about me (avoiding anything that might embarrass me).
    ‘I am interested in what you said earlier on.  Your comments were thought-provoking.’
  • Ask me something about what I am wearing or have with me.
    ‘I see you are carrying Mike’s new book; what are your impressions of it?’
  • Ask me something you think I might know about.
    ‘When you are writing a book, do you have a process you follow?’
  • Ask me something about myself.
    ‘What interests you most about the work you do?’

Building the Conversation

When you want to ask me a question about myself, the best ones open up a whole realm of new information beyond the scope of the question itself. 

‘If you could travel to one place in the world, where would you most want to go to?’

…will open up a conversation about the place, the interests that attract me there, our past experiences of travel, and my attitudes to all sorts of things from culture to food to transport.

I suggest you avoid those ‘clever’ questions that make people feel they need a ‘clever’ answer. At least, until you are both comfortable with one another. And also avoid the cliché question…

Conversational genius, Leil Lowndes, gives excellent advice, noting that ‘So, what do you do?’ can cause embarrassment – as well as marking you out as potentially a relentless networker or shamelessly looking for opportunities.  Far better, she advises, to ask:

‘How do you spend most of your time?’

Her book, How to Talk to Anyone is a conversationalist’s gold-mine.

Additional Tips for Networking Conversations

Here are some extra tips, also from How to Speak so People Listen.

Have an interesting way to describe yourself

Think about what would make the things you do interesting to other people.  I hope that you find your own life interesting, but why should I?  Adapt your description to the person who is asking “what do you do?”  If you are in business to sell, then avoid the temptation to do it now.  Instead, create intrigue about what you do.  Instead of “I sell luxury shoes” (dull), how about “I help people look forward to a long day on their feet”.

When you meet people, ask questions, take an interest

This is, after all, what you are here for.  But it is also the best way to strike up a rapport and build a relationship.  Encourage conversation with open questions like “tell me about yourself” or “what interests you most at the moment?”  Then use more focused questions to learn more about what interests you in what they have said.  They will be flattered when you probe for more detail, and will willingly supply it.   Questions give you control of the process and are respectful of the other person.  

The most interesting thing to me is… me

So, if you ask me about myself, I will think your conversation is great.  Here is your chance to learn about my experiences, so you can pick up stories and anecdotes; my opinions, so you can test, measure and adjust yours; and my expertise, so you can build your bank of knowledge.  You never know when a snippet picked up today will be relevant and enhance your conversation or speech.

Let informal chat become worthwhile conversation

As you move from shallow chat to more substantial exchange of information, the techniques of conversation will start to take over, and the central technique is spotting and using ‘conversational hooks’.  

When I speak or answer a question I will usually give a little bit more information than you asked me for.  That extra snippet gives you a hook onto which you can hang another question, to open out the conversation.

  • You’re back from a business trip? Where did you go?
  • ‘I went to Malta, it was a fascinating place.
  • Really; what did you find fascinating?

You can use these hooks immediately, or come back to them later in your conversation. That way, you also show me you were listening to me; which is a great compliment and will certainly lead me to think a little better of you for it.

What if the hook doesn’t come?

Some people don’t like to talk a lot and will answer even the most open questions with short answers, offering no hook to another question.  If you keep asking questions, it will feel to both of you as if you are conducting and interrogation, rather than a conversation.  So vary your approach, like this:

  • Where was the factory you went to inspect?
  • Malta.
  • ‘I’ve not been there; what did you think of it?
  • ‘Interesting
  • Oh, interesting in what way?

The last of these is a ‘stretch question’ that tries to stretch out a terse answer.  To make it work, you have to avoid any sense of inquisition, so use body language that invites a response: lean in gently, turn one or both palms uppermost, and look them in the eye to show real interest.  Stretch out the last syllable of your stretch question to emphasize that it is a genuine question, then gently lean back to relax into the answer.  Usually, a couple of these stretch questions will open up a reticent conversationalist.

There is more from my book, How to Speak so People Listen, in our article on this site: Effective Speaking: How to Speak so People Listen.

Listening

You’ll notice how long this article is. Listening is an essential skill for effectibve networking. But it is a subject in its own right and we just don;’t have space for it her. But…

We do have a short, low-cost ($17) course. And, if you click the links below, they will offer you a 30% discount.

The Power of Listening: Listening Skills 101

Communication makes up around 80 percent of the work of any project manager. This is Listening 101.

Rapport: The Networking Dance

Rapport is like a dance we create, carrying the parts of a conversation from you to me and back. We constantly build our relationship and empathize with one another’s perceptions.  Rapport connects us, helps us to understand each other, and creates a sense of trust. 

Rapport is based on similarity. So, to strengthen rapport, you need to find and emphasize those points of similarity between you and the people you are speaking with: 

‘People like people who are like themselves.’

Agreeing with and building upon things the other person says will increase your rapport, but what do you do when you disagree?  The secret is to be honest in a way that keeps rapport:

‘I can grasp what you mean, so let me see how you feel about this interpretation.’

Or how about:

‘I’d like to understand better how you made that assessment: can you say more about the difference between…’

Five Techniques for Building Rapport

1. Body Position

In conversation, the orientation of your body to the other person’s and its proximity can make or break rapport. Ideally, face people directly, but if they don’t look comfortable facing you directly; allow yourself to stand slightly to one side too. 

Get the distance wrong and they will either feel you are too close and familiar, or too distant and cold.  Luckily, we all have a fairly well-tuned sense of the bubble around us – at about arm’s length.

I referred a little while ago to Leil Lowndes. Of all her tips, my favorite is ‘The big-baby pivot’.  When someone comes towards you, don’t just look at them; don’t just turn your head; but swing your whole body round to greet them and give them a powerful smile that says:

‘thank you for coming over to me; I am looking forward to speaking with you.’

2. Posture, Gesture, and Expression

Watch two people deep in conversation at a coffee shop or bar. You will see matching postures, gestures that look the same, made almost simultaneously, and similar expressions passing over each person’s face.  We do this naturally when we are in rapport. Therefore, when we do it deliberately, picking one or two aspects at first, we strengthen rapport.

3. Vocal Patterns

All of the normal patterns of how we speak can be shared.  When you match the volume, pace, and tone of your speaking, to the other person’s, you will increase our rapport and make it more comfortable for me to listen to you. The one aspect to avoid is their accent. Since very few of us have a precise enough sense of accent, attempting to mimic it comes across as disrespectful.

4. Word Choice

Notice some of the words I use a lot and occasionally add them into your own speech. This will make me feel at home with your turns of phrase. They will feel comfortingly familiar to me.

A common example is the words we use to describe how we understand one another. 

  • Some people see what you are saying and understand your point of view (my own favorite)
  • Others hear you clearly, so that your words ring true
  • Some get a feel for your angle on things and grasp your meaning
  • While others like to sniff out the essence of your argument to see if it smells sweet or if it stinks

If you can use the same senses in your speech; visual, auditory, bodily, or smell, then the other person will see, hear, grasp, or sniff out your message quickly.

5. We not Me

Of all the pronouns, one set confers intimacy: we, us, our, and ours. Use them to build rapport when you are talking so that you and the other person can feel like your friendship is starting to develop and you can readily agree, if someone challenges you both.

Reciprocation: The Ultimate Reason for Networking

The key to long-term value for the networking relationships you build is a simple ‘Give not Get’ mindset. That is, if you approach people with the attitude of what you can do for them (rather than what you can get from them), they will want to help you in the future.

Reciprocation is the well-researched tendency for people to want to pay you back, in kind, for what you have done for or to them. It is the exchange of favours and concessions.

What can I do for you?

As a result, listen for hints that will tell you what you can do for them. Can you help them, point them to information, or connect them with other people. Generosity is the bedrock of reciprocation.

Don’t lose what you’ve earned

If you work hard at your networking, you will meet lots of people and learn lots from them. That creates an asset-bank that you have earned. But not recording who you meet and what you learn from them is like leaving cash out on the street!

After meeting people take time to transfer their details to your contact book, along with whatever snippets of information you may find useful in the future.

Stay I’m Touch

And then, keep in touch with them. You have started to build a rapport, but it will diminish over time – until you once again become strangers. Unless, that is, you keep it topped up by periodic contact.

Reciprocation Economy

Getting to know lots of people through networking is the start to creating a reciprocation economy – a network of contacts who help one another.

Learn about and understand the people you meet and look for things you can do for them. Later, you will be able to ask them for help, in return. And that help can include asking them to introduce you to other people whose experiences and contacts can help you. That way, you expand your network even further.

I describe the Reciprocation Economy in detail, in my book How To Influence in Any Situation (2nd edition Brilliant Influence).

Reciprocation Economy

Avoid these Six Networking Mistakes

In the final extract from my book, How to Speak so People Listen, I have set out six common networking mistakes professionals make.

Mistake 1: Standing in the corner, waiting for an approach

This won’t allow you to meet the people you choose and will give you less time speaking with people.  Confidently approach people and enquire politely if they would like to tell you about themselves.  Who wouldn’t?

Mistake 2: Aiming high

Yes, the chief executive of a global company would be a great contact, but so will the eager young starters, in their first job.  They will grow and develop and so will their careers.  Everyone is worth talking to; you don’t know what they will be doing in five or ten years.

That is a similar sentiment to the one in this video…

Mistake 3: Eating when you are trying to communicate

Eat or meet? Choose one and if you want to focus on the networking, eat beforehand, so you don’t go into the meeting hungry.

Mistake 4: Focusing on yourself

The best networkers go in with an attitude of curiosity and set out to learn as much as they can about the people they meet.

Mistake 5: Looking for what you can get from the people you meet

The better approach is to listen for what you can offer them.  Let the powers of familiarity and reciprocation work their wonders and soon, you will start to receive.

Mistake 6: Failing to follow up on a conversation

Always make a note of any commitments you make or requests they make – and deal with them promptly and efficiently at your next opportunity.  Send a note to everyone you met, thanking them for an interesting conversation and offering to stay in touch.  If you use social media like LinkedIn, consider inviting them to link with you. Do connect with me.

What are Your Thoughts and Questions about Networking?

I’d love to read them, in the comments below. And I will always respond to any comments.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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