In some ways, networking seems to have become a bit of a dirty word. Yes, it is still used in the marketing of most events and as a benefit of joining most communities, but at least in my experience, the term has begun to take in more of a negative connotation. Too often, when people hear “networking,” they immediately picture a crowded, loud room filled with people in suits, and start to sweat just thinking about the hassle of attempting to initiate conversations with strangers while simultaneously avoiding a thinly-veiled sales pitch or other unwanted attention.

This is not what networking is supposed to be, folks! In fact, I believe that, in its most desirable and useful form, continued networking is a critical component in healthy personal development and career growth. So what can we do to change the perception of networking, and make it powerful (and dare I say “fun”) again?

I’ll be the first to say that some networking events don’t help themselves in terms of how they are set up, promoted and executed, but that’s out of our control. What is in our control is how we interact with each other. Here are a few networking rules that I think can help us get started:

  1. Don’t Try to Sell Anyone Anything – In my opinion, this is the cardinal rule of networking. Break it, and you not only lose the individual’s trust, but you’ll quickly get a reputation as someone to avoid at these types of events. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s also part of what give networking a bad rap in the first place. Instead of going into a networking event with the intent of “selling” or “generating leads,” try approaching the event with the intention of learning from every individual and making genuine connections. You may be surprised at how many “leads” you generate by just being authentic, sharing your story and caring about what others have to say. The best networking success stories are often not about the outcome (“I got a fancy new job” or “I landed a whale of a client”), but about the relationships formed that end up lasting a lifetime.     
  2. Don’t Try to Force Your “Script” – There is quite a bit of literature out there on how to create your networking “elevator pitch,” and the importance of having your script down pat before you wade into the networking fray. These tools can be effective, but it’s important to remember that, in the relationship-building business, authenticity trumps all and trust is the only currency that matters. If you’re nervous or don’t feel confident in your networking skills, it’s absolutely useful to practice in advance to avoid drawing a blank when the time comes. If, however, what you’re saying comes across as an elevator pitch or a boilerplate script, it will turn people off. Use your best judgment as to when a script makes sense in a conversation, and when to throw it out the window—these options will become clearer to you the more time you spend networking.
  3. Be Fully Engaged with Each Person Before Moving On – “I have to talk to at least 20 people to meet my self-administered networking quota.” If you are thinking this way, you’re probably letting others know too. Whether it’s the way your eyes are searching the crowd as they’re talking or how you’re aggressively trying to wrap up the discussion, people can sense when they’re just the next stop on a fast-moving networking train. To avoid this, I try to remind myself in every conversation to do my best to make the person I’m talking to feel like the most important person in the world. How do you do this? Ask the other people about themselves, and really listen to their answers. Make and keep eye contact. Nod when you agree with a point, and add similar stories from your life or career to help them feel like their experiences aren’t isolated. Be kind, and smile a lot.
  4. Go In With the Right Attitude – Most of us have been guilty of this, myself massively included. I’ve gone into networking events dreading the experience and, shockingly, the outcome is always just as I expected. Because I didn’t give it a chance. On the other hand, when I think about the past events that have yielded wonderful relationships and deep discussions, and get myself excited about the opportunity to learn from as many interesting people as possible in one evening, I always manage to get something valuable out of it (and hopefully contribute to a positive experience for others).

Eager to try out your new skills? Join your friends and colleagues at the FPA Annual Conference, held this year October 16–18 in Minneapolis, MN.

Dan Martin is the Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association, the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanW_Martin and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/danmartinmarketing.

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