Wednesday, March 9, 2011

6 Ways to Network Authentically and Effectively - and Get Clients

You've been there. Yes, that networking event you had to push yourself to attend. After heading to the bar and getting a drink, you plaster a smile on your face, grit your teeth, and make small talk. And hope that, somehow, it leads to new business.

If this wasn't you, you've surely witnessed it countless times. Or, perhaps you've avoided such events for fear of the above. Is it possible to truly enjoy ourselves - and also to really be ourselves, in a relaxed way, as if we were enjoying a nice dinner with close friends?

One question that often arises, for public speaking, presentations and when networking, is authenticity. Have you ever met someone at a networking event, or witnessed a speaker, who just felt fake? Or... have you ever felt fake? Most of us have. Whether we try to or not, we usually seek to conform with perceived societal norms and expectations. These get in the way of being ourselves and expressing ourselves easily. Ironically, even if we try to rebel against them, we’re still “in relationship” with them, and thus can’t escape them. So, what to do?

Tip #1: Get present. A good first step is simply focusing on the breath. It’s the most fundamental means of finding yourself amidst everyone else. Instead of worrying about how you're being perceived, practice deep abdominal breathing, the most essential bodily activity. Then, stretch and loosen up to let go of unnecessary physical and mental tension.

Tip #2: Play. What we think of as “natural” or “ourselves” is really a series of habits. We can find a new range of expression by playing. Have fun! Alter your voice, your facial expressions, etc. This can break us out of our habitual expression and constriction, and help us take ourselves less seriously – a good step forward.

Tip #3: Don’t try to look good. The more you try to make a good impression, the worse you’ll actually do. Let go, relax and speak with much less effort. You’ll be surprised how much less stressful it feels, and how much better you’ll be received.

Tip #4: Focus on who you’re communicating with - and let your own work arise in conversation. Regardless of whether it’s an audience or an individual, really listen. Even if they don’t express anything deep back, look for hints about how their work is either important to them or an important service in the world, and engage them about it.

Tip #5: Frame what you do engagingly and in terms of how you help people. If you just say, "I'm a CPA," they'll put you in a nice box and psychologically move onto the next person. However, if you say something more along the lines of, "I'm a CPA who works with small businesspeople and helps them save money," it gets them thinking. (No, that's not a stunning example, but you get the idea.) Always find a way to get them to engage you and ask questions; don't give a final answer right off the bat. But, in the end, communicate both what you love and how people have benefited - and let them realize on their own what they'd gain from working with you. Caveat: be wary of "elevator pitch formulas" that sound good in theory but forced when they come out of your mouth. Find what works for you.

Tip #5: More than anything, connect. It's far better to make a handful of great connections than superficial talk with two dozen people you forget. Enjoy just meeting people! They'll appreciate your attention. So focus on quality connections, and don't try to get around the room as fast as you can. Caveat: put your attention where it's warranted. If someone doesn't feel like a good connection (either personally or business-wise), give a "Very nice to meet you" or such, and move on. Use your time wisely.

Tip #6: Follow up. Immediately. As in, the next day. Write a brief note. Don't, however, go right into the hard sell, which will turn them off and make others think you just want to make money off them, and didn't appreciate them as people. And, if you had a great conversation, seek them out on Biznik or LinkedIn too.

The above tips are just a beginning - but they'll get you started, and go a long way.

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