Beat the networking blues

How you communicate at casual events may count even more than your performance giving a formal speech, according to the leadership training group Toastmasters. In fact, knowing how to mingle and network may affect your success more than any other dynamic, the group says.

So you need to seem immediately "relatable", to use a buzzword favoured by supreme populist Kim Kardashian. But "working a room" – approaching groups of strangers in a bid to bond – can be disconcerting.

Many of us have experienced the feeling of "blowing" a networking event, becoming increasingly isolated and inhibited while everyone around us seems to form groups and chat freely.

Here are seven tips on how to beat inhibition and to start conversations that make instant or speedy connections.

1. Have questions handy

At business networking events, guests default to talking about the weather or recent events such as the Melbourne Cup, says networking coach Ruth Thirtle. Such "filler" improves rapport but fails to spark an instant connection, Thirtle says.

So, to open and fuel a conversation, prepare some questions related to business. Ask the person, for example, who is their ideal client, or whether their business serves local customers, or has a "global feel".

"So, maybe, have three or four questions up your sleeve," Thirtle says. "The little trick is to have questions that you would like somebody to ask you about your business."

It means that if someone then says "Oh, and what about you?" you are well-prepared.

2. Nut-out what you do

When someone asks what you do, answer with more details.

Thirtle says the standard answer is to simply state your profession: "I am an accountant" or "I am a business coach", for example.

But instead, connect by explaining how you help people. Reveal the outcome of your job, Thirtle says – a little depth fuels engagement.

3. Stop selling

Stop focusing on offering professional help to the people you meet, Thirtle says. That approach, she explains, can make you look "judgmental and off-putting".

As an ex-rugby player, Thirtle knows how it feels to be sized up and offered well-meaning, unwanted "help".

"I still go to the gym. I still eat well. I'm relatively healthy. But the personal trainers and weight-loss coaches that have stood in front of me and said, 'I could help you lose weight' are never going to get any business from me," she says.

To fuel a dialogue, Thirtle says, forget making a sale. That way, the pressure is off, which stokes connection and flow.

4. Spin stories

People love stories; we grow up learning lessons through them, Thirtle says. So, from the start of a networking function, tell stories about people you have worked with and people you have helped. "Case studies, testimonials," she says.

"People like to know that normal people have had dealings with you and had great results." Build your capacity for quickly establishing rapport by rehearsing those stories, she adds.

5. Share the love

Boost your chances of smoothly bonding with strangers by finding common ground, says marketer Fran Iseli-Hall.

Or, Iseli-Hall says, give an honest compliment about the person – on their handbag, necklace or business card, for example. Offering a compliment breaks the ice and is an instant rapport-builder, she says.

There's just one crucial rule. "You have to mean it," she says.

6. Keep it personal

Giving business cards to 50 people in an attempt at speed-networking gets you nowhere, Iseli-Hall says. Focus on getting to know people and building particular relationships, she says.

"Relationships are everything in business," she adds. The more personal relationships you nurture in business, the more you succeed.

Even if you meet someone who is not your target market, try to cultivate them as a contact. "You never know who they know."

7. Zip it and listen

Most people love talking, Iseli-Hall says. Few are great listeners, which means a widespread desire for attention. In fact, listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give, Iseli-Hall says.

"And if you can be one of those awesome people listening, you will be remembered, appreciated and liked, which leads to better relationships, which leads to more business," she says.

The story Beat the networking blues first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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