If your idea of networking is a bunch of suits standing round discussing the finer details of their business or people rapidly moving round a room exchanging business cards telling you what they do and how would you like to pay, then yes, this can be what happens but it's not effective networking.
Networking is about building business relationships. Getting to know someone and their business so if the opportunity arises you know when you might use their services and how to refer them to other people. Ethical networking works on the basis of giving without necessarily expecting to receive in return. In fact, these days I rarely turn up at a 'network' meeting with the expectation of doing business but hoping to connect with some new people.
I've just done a double stint of networking, starting with an early morning breakfast meeting and ending with a social, informal networking group. Both very different but both small and friendly and definitely more along the lines of ethical networking. In fact the reason they both worked was people there understood what networking was about and were happy to just enjoy the conversation which, actually rarely came round to business.
A few tips to improve your networking:
- You don't have to go a meeting with the intention of meeting everyone there but do at least aim to speak to half a dozen people - depending on time and numbers.
- If you get a list of attendees before the meeting, plan who you'd like to talk to.
- Practice what you want to say about who you are and what you do so it sounds natural.
- Don't just spend time talking to the people you already know. Ask them to introduce you to someone else in the room.
- Take business cards with you so if you do want to exchange details you can - ask for theirs first before handing over yours.
- Listen more than you talk ... two ears, one mouth!
- Be professional - dress and act the part. Match the impression you want to give and in a way that reflects your business.
- Have a few standard open-ended questions that you can use to start conversations if you get stuck.
- Network regularly - not just when you're looking for new business. Relationships take time to build. You many not see the results for many months or even years.
- Don't just focus on the business, find out more about them on a social level.
- If you say you'll follow up then do so and do it the same day or the following day at the latest!
If you're going to go to the expense, effort and spend your time at a meeting, then at least do more than consign the business cards and contacts you do collect, to the back of a drawer, never to see the light of day. Start building the relationship when you get back to your office.