Networking is not something you do when you need to get a job or attract new customers. Networking is a lifestyle discipline that should be started by the time you graduate high school.
Every skill required in networking is one you likely know and have used in past interactions. Now it is a matter of applying some best practices to what you already know to become an effective networker.
1. Friendship is the ultimate objective. In its simplest terms, networking is about starting out as strangers and ultimately winding up as casual friends. Casual friends know just a little more about each other than acquaintances do, but not as much as good friends.
2. It’s not about you. Dale Carnegie, one of the greatest networkers in American history, says it better than anyone: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
3. Meet and greet. One of the best icebreakers is a simple: “Hi, I’m [name] … and you are?” Smile, look them in the eye and offer a firm handshake long enough to notice their eye color. Repeat the name back to them. Carnegie often remarked that someone’s name, correctly pronounced, is the sweetest sound on earth to that person. If necessary, ask them to repeat it and/or spell it for you so you can mentally record it.
4. Ask questions to start the conversation. The easiest way to get to know people is to ask them questions about their favorite topic — themselves. Use simple, direct questions such as, “Tell me about yourself.”, “Where did you grow up?” or “What did you do today?”
5. Leverage your surroundings. Whatever brought the two (or more) of you together is a great place to start a conversation. Ask open-ended questions (ones that cannot be answered with a yes, no or short answer), such as, “What brought you here today?”, “What are you impressions so far?”, “What did you learn today that you didn’t know or were surprised to hear?” and “What do you hope will happen during the rest of your time here?”
6. Listen well. People can tell whether you are really listening by your focus on them versus on your surroundings. Listening involves a pleasant level of eye contact, a warm expression with a slight smile, and periodic verbal and nonverbal cues that you were listening. Ask follow-up “tell me more” questions, which is a sure sign you were listening.
7. Share after they have shared. Keep your sharing to 40 percent or less of the conversation. Be concise and warm, and tell ministories. They will ask follow-up questions if they want to know more.
8. Keep it positive. No one is attracted to negative people, so avoid any conversation that is negative, like complaining, gossiping or talking about how bad things are. Instead, express a level of positive excitement in all you say.
9. Practice effective body language. Body language communicates your interest. Smile from the eyes as well as the mouth. Listen with the eyes as well as the ears. Stand alertly but not aggressively. Your body language should invite conversation and demonstrate your interest in what is being said.
10. Gather contact information. Make sure you get their contact information, which includes phone, email and possibly their social media and/or website information. Invest in some business cards with your contact information to make it easier for others. Record the information in your email or physical address book.
11. Send a follow-up. Send them a quick email or text to let them know that you enjoyed meeting them. Mention something that showed you were listening. Invite them to connect with you via LinkedIn and other social networks.
12. Seek opportunities to meet people. There are opportunities everywhere to meet people. Every town and city has local networking groups — Google “top networking sites” to find events in your area — and every profession has associations. You can meet people in the checkout line. Or in your neighborhood. Where you go to school or work. At social events. At a ballgame. You get the idea — anywhere. And think, if you made it a point to meet just one new person every day, at the end of a year you’d have 365 new people in your network.