“Networking is not about hunting. It is about farming. It’s about cultivating relationships. Don’t engage in ‘premature solicitation’. You’ll be a better networker if you remember that.” ~ Dr. Ivan Misner

For many, merely saying the word “networking” starts the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms, the shallow breathing and well, for lack of a better term, the fear.  But it doesn’t have to be like that.  Especially for women.

networkingI think most women are natural born networkers.  More often than not, we can talk to anyone once we’ve found out what we have in common (kids, pets, hobbies, etc).  In fact, I believe this casual networking happens more often than you might even be aware. [It’s tweetable]

Think about it, you’re standing in line at the grocery store and you’re chatting up the gal next to you about something that catches your eye in the magazines, or in the basket. Or you see someone with the latest smart phone that you’ve been curious about and you ask them about it.  Your waiting in line at the local coffee shop and someone orders a fancy drink you’ve thought about trying and you ask them what they think. You comment over the bathroom sink that you like someone’s lipstick or purse.

We just can’t seem to help ourselves.  I think it goes even deeper than just chatting someone up.  Women are natural born connectors.  If we hear someone needs something, we’re likely to share our resources to help a gal out.  Which of course, makes our network quite valuable…the babysitter, the banker, the real estate agent, the lawyer, the pool guy, the person who designed our website, the personal trainer, etc.

If you can tell the average woman what it is you need, she can either personally hook you up with an introduction or recommendation, or she’s knows someone who can.  Our network and our relationships are like gold to us women.

So then why do so many of us fight networking so much? Why should a casual conversation be any different because you’re at a networking event?

All it takes is asking a simple question for the networking to begin.  And there’s no reason why that question has to be “what do you do?”

What’s to follow is by no means a conclusive list of tips on how to successfully network at events.  There’s so much more to consider…once you get more comfortable attending and participating.  My goal here is to show you that networking doesn’t have to be stressful and that with a few simple steps, you can successfully network at any event.

Networking Basics for the Networking Challenged

Pick your networking events based on your comfort level. Every networking event is different.  Some events are grand mixers that take place in ballrooms.  Other events might meet over a meal or drinks.  Some events have fees to attend and still others are free (or merely require a food or drink purchase).  Some events have speaker or trainings that occur during the meeting.  Others can be very casual and invite everyone to mix and mingle.  Check out a few and discover what works for you and your comfort level.

Know the target market for the event.   Every networking event has a target audience in mind.  Some events are membership-based, some are referral-based (I try to avoid this kind myself, though I hear that if you find the right one, they can be great resources), some are business to business (B2B) while others are business to company (B2C), and still others can be co-ed or even men or women-only. I personally like women-only networking the best – I don’t feel as pressured and I feel like the connections are much more genuine and mutually beneficial.

Know what you do.  I think that a big part of the fear around networking isn’t that you’ll need to be social, it’s that you don’t know how to comfortably and easily tell others what you do.  Or maybe you don’t know how to ask for what you want or need without sounding salesy or pushy.  When you know what you do (and don’t have to hem and haw and stammer through it) it gives you a great deal of confidence. I invite you to check out this article I wrote if you need a little help or inspiration in creating your “what do you do” pitch (often know as your elevator pitch).

Ask questions and listen.  Another level of networking awkwardness comes from everyone asking (and answering) the same question over and over.  Change it up.  Ask a new question.  Try a “have you been to one of their events before?” or maybe “how do you know the host/organization?” or even “what brought you to tonight’s event?”.

And better yet, once someone tells you what they do, follow up with something unexpected… “what do you like most about that?” or “if you could start over again, knowing all you know now, how would your day look?”  And don’t forget the very useful “tell me more.” Like with all marketing, networking is all about creating connections and getting to know, like and trust others…and them you. What better way to establish trust and likability than to actually, genuinely ask questions and listen to what others have to say.

Follow up. Ah, the follow up…where we all seem to drop the ball.  As they say, the fortune is in the follow up. It’s not enough to just chat someone up at an event.  To establish that know, like and trust factor, you need to actually continue with the connection that you’ve made.  I advocate sending a quick email thanking them for chat, include something here that you actually discussed or said that you would pass along, and an invitation to connect via social networks (I like to connect via LinkedIn) and to chat further over coffee or a phone call.

You shouldn’t be focused on selling yourself or your products and services (you can have a link to all of that in your email signature).  And remember to let them know that if you’re able to help them in any way to feel free to reach out to you.

No one says that all networking must take place at a formal networking event.  In fact, as I mentioned above, women network differently, so why not invite a few business friends or colleagues to get together for a casual coffee, lunch or drinks get-together.

Better yet, why not start your own networking event…it’s much easier than you might think.  

And one final simple tip…dress casually and comfortably.  No, I’m not talking yoga pants and a tee, but business casual (and comfortable shoes if you’ll be standing the entire time). Keep in mind, you will be sharing your business cards and collecting others – having pockets (and a pen) comes in very handy in situations like this.  I’ve been known to leave the purse at home and to make do with the pockets on my clothes – it’s one less thing to worry about balancing with my drink and cards (and leaves my hands free for a firm handshake).

I challenge you to find a local networking event to attend over the next week (Meetup.com is a great place to start).  Then get out there and get networking!! Make those connections!