Networking For Dummies

As the saying goes, it’s not just what you know; it’s who you know.

When it comes to making connections and finding new clients, there is only so much you can do online or through the mail. At some point every freelancer needs to get out there and make face-to-face connections with potential clients. If you aren’t networking, you should be.

Many creative types struggle with networking, myself included. I’m shy and introverted. I’m much happier alone in my cave than out there mingling with people. I don’t like making small talk, and there are many things I would rather do than spend my time shaking the hands of strangers and trying to sell my services.

I do it anyway, because networking is one of the most effective ways I know of to make connections and land new clients.

I’m still a beginner at networking, so I’ve been researching what works and what doesn’t and learning how I can make the process less stressful, even fun. Here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve learned that have worked for me:

Start small. Networking takes practice, so ease into it. You don’t have to be the most popular person in the room. Give yourself small but attainable goals and gradually work your way up. If you are a very shy person, your first goal might be simply to initiate a conversation before the end of the day. Or to pass out three business cards within, say, two hours. Build your confidence with a series of small victories.

Plan ahead. Before attending your next networking event think of three topics you can use to start a conversation, or to keep a conversation going if there is a lull. Questions are best as they encourage dialogue. The key is to keep the topics safe but interesting. Thinking through a few “backup” questions ahead of time can take the pressure off during an actual conversation.

Be yourself. Many people think that to be a good networker you have to talk like a smarmy salesman and blow a lot of hot air. Nothing could be further from the truth. People can spot a phony a mile away. Networking doesn’t have to mean being fake or using people just to get business. The best way to build professional relationships is to relax and just be yourself. Realize ahead of time that you won’t hit it off with everyone. That’s ok. Of course you want to put your best foot forward—just make sure it’s really your foot.

Be confident. Confidence and enthusiasm will take you a lot farther than talent. Learn the difference between being confident and just being pushy. If you are too quick to hand out your business card you can come across as shallow or desperate. Also, a truly confident person won’t feel the need to exaggerate his accomplishments or to have an answer for everything.

Ask questions and listen well. People love to talk about themselves. Asking simple questions can be a great way to keep a conversation going. Surprisingly, if you listen well and ask the other person a few follow-up questions, he/she will usually walk away thinking you are a great conversationalist when in fact they did most of the talking.

Beat them to the punch. You want to be the first person in the conversation who asks, “So what do you do for a living?” Here’s why: Finding out what the other person does first gives you the chance to tailor your job description in a way that underlines how you can meet their particular needs. For example, if I’m talking to someone who works at an ad agency I tell them I do concept art and design characters for ad campaigns. If I’m talking with someone who designs websites, I tell them I design characters for Flash animation.

Focus on what you can give, not what you can get. Don’t go into a conversation focusing on your need to drum up more work. Your potential client isn’t really concerned about making sure you can pay your bills. The client needs to know what you can do for them. Instead of talking about why they should hire you, talk about how you can help them. It’s a subtle but very crucial distinction, and it can make all the difference in the world.

Use the snack table to your advantage. Don’t load up your plate. The less you have to eat, the faster you will run out. This will give you an easy out from a dull conversation. Simply excuse yourself to get more food. Also, people tend to gather around food so every time you go back for more you have a chance to meet new people and make new connections. In the long run you might wind up eating a little more, but you’ll also make a lot more contacts.

Carry a pen. If someone mentions a specific project they have interest in or recommends another person for you to contact, you’ll want to be able to whip out your pen and make a note (ideally on their business card.)

No business card? No problem. What if a potential contact has no card to give you because he/she ran out, or worse, forgot to bring any? No problem. Simply whip out one of yours and ask them to write their contact info on the back. Hopefully you brought plenty of cards, but if you didn’t you can simply reverse the strategy and ask if you can write down your information on one of theirs.

Mark your cards. Hopefully you will collect a large stack of business cards from potential contacts. However, it won’t do much good if you get home and can’t remember who is who. Here’s a helpful trick: When I meet someone I definitely want to follow up with, I bend down one corner of their business card as I slip it into my pocket. I may also jot a note or two about our conversation so that I can help jog their memory when we follow up later (i.e. “I was they guy who talked with you about finding a rep in LA”).

Follow up immediately! It’s amazing how many people don’t follow up with new contacts after a networking event. Talk about a big mistake! Make sure you send an email to every important contact you meet by the next business day. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a brief “I enjoyed meeting you….” type comment followed by a brief description of your services (to jog their memory). Also, make sure to include a link to your website and any contact information so they can easily get a hold of you.

This is hardly an exhaustive list. Do you have some tips or tricks on networking? Feel free to leave a comment below.