Are you afraid to network? Does it seem like a real pain to you and something that has never produced any results? Well, if you do it right networking can actually be fun and productive. But, it is all about doing it right - not just grinding your teeth through it. The art of networking is about starting conversations - and then relationships - with others. From a business development standpoint, your ability to start relationships with other professionals successfully and memorably will greatly help you grow your practice.
There are 2 kinds of networking: 1) formal encounters you can plan for, and 2) serendipitous meetings you cannot (person sitting next to you on plane or in doctor’s office for example).
It is important to prepare for both of these opportunities. All networking – the kind you can plan for and the kind you can not - is a job and requires some kind of preparation if you want it to succeed and result in something tangible. Remember, the word “work” is a huge part of the word “network,” so here are a few tips on what you need to prepare, practice and do to successfully network.
Before You Leave Your Office or Home:
1. Make sure your appearance is immaculate. By this I mean wear classic clothes (even for dress casual occaisons), avoid jewelry, ties, and makeup that can distract someone from hearing your message and conversation, and make sure your hair and attire are all tidy. First impressions can take a second to create and a lifetime to eliminate. Your brain and conversation are the main attraction - not your clothes, hair, make-up, or style. You do not want someone fixating on your facial hair, missing collar button, your stylish eye liner or your new extremely high heels. How professional you look, even on a casual day at your office, really matters.
2. Practice your handshake - a lot. You want to make sure you firmly grip someone’s hand and have direct eye contact with them when you shake their hand. Your body language should suggest that you want to meet and touch this other person. Avoid such awful (and unfortunately memorable) handshakes as “the claw,” “the fish” and the truly heinous “wet fish” (If you do not know what these are, call or email me!).
3. Memorize and practice (out loud) your answers to 2 questions: “What do you do?” and “What’s new?”. Your answers to these questions (the first being called your “30-second elevator speech”) should actually roll off your tongue effortlessly and with passion and enthusiasm. These questions are actually tremendous opportunities to promote yourself in a non-braggadaccio way. Your response should create a clear picture of what you do in such a way that the person will ask you a follow-up question and actually remember you at a later time. So, for example, instead of saying “I’m a patent lawyer,” try “Are you familiar with Apple computers? I am a lawyer who helps small technology companies (like Apple when it started out in the mid-80s) protect their software, packaging design and other aspects of their intellectual property from piracy and theft.” If someone said that to me I would respond with “Wow! How do you do that?” or “Tell me more.”
Or, instead of saying “I am an immigration lawyer,” try “I am a business immigration lawyer for mid-sized companies in Pennsylvania who want to bring in the most talented scientists in the world to help find a cure for cancer. I make sure all the paperwork is in compliance with U.S. immigration laws so this employee and the company can get right to work.”
4. Make sure you have business cards and a nice pen in a very accessible place. That would not be in the briefcase or coat you just checked in the coatroom.
5. If it is a formal event, find out who is going, think about 1-2 people you want to meet and do your research: google them, review their website and ask the host about them. Importantly, prepare conversation topics and a few questions to ask them.
6. Select formal networking opportunities based on your sincere interest in the organization or host because there is a likelihood of you meeting someone who can eventually help your practice.
At the Event:
7. Your job at a networking event is not to sell your services or boast about your achievements or be predatory in any way. Your job is to start a relationship or a discussion that can be continued at a later time. So many people abhor networking because they think they have to snare some new business at an event. The opposite is actually true, so relax.
8. Select 1-3 people you would like to talk to and seek them out.
9. Start conversations with “connector” questions like: “What brings you to this event?” Or, “How do you know the host?”.
10. For a networking conversation to succeed, it should be 90% about the person you are talking to and 10% about you. We live in a world where people will stay interested in a conversation if it is of interest to them in some way. So, the best networking conversations involve having the other person talk about his or her world, work, employer, family and more. Be ready to do your elevator speech (a small, memorable “tease” about what problems you solve for your clients), and then turn the conversation back to your guest and learn and listen to their responses. Maintain eye contact at all times. The person should feel like he is the most important person to you in the room at that moment. Needless to say, do not answer or look at your cell phone.
11. If you know no one at an event, start up a conversation with someone who is standing by him or herself. Everyone wants to be talking to someone at gatherings. Implement the conversation strategy in Number 10 here.
12. Ask for the person’s business card and later, when you are alone, write some notes on the back of it about your conversation. I call this your “cheat sheet.” Once back in your office, you will use your notes to follow-up with the person. If you do not do this, you are likely to forget a lot of your conversation with the guest, much of which may be useful fodder for follow-up conversations. If you learned the guest just came back from a wine trip in Italy, you could send him an article from a magazine about Italy or great Italian wines. If you learned the guest was in charge of environmental compliance at his company, you could invite him to an event at the EPA or at your firm. Remember you are starting a relationship - an ongoing conversation - so you need to find topics or ways to continue the thread you started at the event.
13. Networking conversations should be kept to 5-7 minutes. Everyone at an event intends to circulate a bit, so be considerate of someone else’s time.
14. To end the conversation, here are a few tips. Always get a beverage from the bar or coffee stand that is only a quarter filled. This will allow you to break away to refill your glass. Another gentle way to move on is to ask the person you are talking to if they would like to go with you to meet the host or another guest.
After the Event:
15. Follow-up with those you talked to after the event in a way that is meaningful to them. You need to stay in touch with someone 5-7 times or more during a year for them to even consider you for a piece of work. So, each of your “touches” to them should be focused on ways to make their job or life easier. I have a list of value-added services I give to lawyers I work with to help them come up with ways to reach out in a meaningful and thoughtful way to their clients, referral source and new targets in order to stay “top-of-mind.” This list ranges from follow-up lunches and entertainment to co-authoring an article, inviting targets to an industry conference as your guest, nominating them for an award and more.
So, enough tips. Let me tell you a true story that exemplifies how these tips work.
A guy walks into a bar (no really keep reading). He is an employment lawyer wearing a great suit, and while he thinks his appearance is tops, he still upon entering the bar goes directly to the men’s room and checks his appearance, teeth, hair and breath just to be safe. His hands tend to get hot and sweaty, so he runs cold water over them and places a paper towel in his trouser pocket in case he needs to touch it lightly before shaking someone’s hand. He heads out of the men’s room. He is meeting an old college friend, but does not see him in the bar. So, he orders a drink and stands next to another gentlemen also seemingly by himself. He turns to the gentlemen and asks, “Have you ever had any food here?”. The man says he has the chicken wings all the time, and they are terrific. The lawyer says, “Is your office nearby?”. “Yes,” he answers, “I work across the street at XYZ, Corp.” The lawyer responds, “Oh what do you do for them?”. And so the conversation begins.
The lawyer’s college friend then comes in and introductions are made all around and quick stories exchanged about the bar, college and their current employers. The lawyer learns the man is about to launch his own technology firm. The lawyer and his friend retreat to a table, but not before exchanging business cards with the man at the bar. The lawyer follows up with the man in the coming months, first sending him an email telling him how great it was to meet him, and second sending him some articles from Small Business Magazine on cost-saving “start-up” tips. The lawyer then invites him to lunch to hear how his plans are progressing. Based on the conversation, the lawyer offers to put him in touch with a banker, a start up lawyer and a reporter who covers the trade. The lawyer then invites him to the firm’s corporate update briefing for firm clients and friends. And so it goes, the man at the bar became both a friend and client. But, it took work on the part of the lawyer. He made the first move, he asked probing questions, and he followed up consistently over a period of time in a way that was meaningful and actually helpful to the business man.
So as I like to say: get up, get out, and get going. This stuff really works.