15th Sep 2022
Networking sounds like an awfully contrived way to meet and mingle, but it can have a phenomenal effect on both your life and your business’s bottom line. Melanie Morris gets the lowdown on how to make friends and influence people.
Warning: This feature starts with a rant! Like so many who have rediscovered the BBC’s Dragons’ Den this year, and like so many who can’t seem to walk any significant distance without being hooked up to a podcast, I’ve really tuned in to UK entrepreneur Steven Bartlett. I love his energy, I love his modern perspective on business and what it takes to be a success in 2022, I love his The Diary of a CEO podcast, and have downloaded his book, Happy Sexy Millionaire, on Audible. What has totally triggered me, however, is a post he put up on Instagram, talking about networking. Here’s what Steven Bartlett said…
“I never network. What does networking do? It expands your network. So, there’s other ways to expand my network: podcasting, producing content, doing really well in my business. All these other digital reputational factors expand my network in a way which is much more considerable (sic) and easy than going in and flocking around a room introducing myself. So, I’ve never networked; I find it exhausting and pointless and I think there’s a much more scalable way to network, which is either doing something that adds a lot of value to the world and then you don’t have to network, or using the internet, which is what I’ve always chosen to do.”
There’s so much I want to pick apart here, but to synopsise, it looks like Steven is doing a lot to try and avoid meeting people in real life. Which is fine when you already have a successful business in digital comms and content, an Instagram account with 1.7 million followers, a number one-charting podcast and an agent hustling (networking?) on your behalf. For the rest of us, we need to network. As a generic term, networking can have negative connotations; the idea of prowling a hotel function room, business card in paw, looking for anyone who’ll talk to us but hoping it might be someone who’ll have a significant impact on our future success. It all seems a bit hapless. But what about a reframe? Networking is the art of good, balanced human interaction, the sharing of ideas and opportunities which if worked properly, can add a whole new layer of success and enrichment to business, life, and life in business.
When I was starting out, I always had a view that anything could be achieved in six months, as it took that amount of time to move towards the space one wanted to thrive in. It took that long to identify and then meet the people, become familiar with their world and then comfortably become part of it. I didn’t realise that this was “networking”. Maybe in the 1980s the term hadn’t evolved, but that’s exactly what it was – an instinctive process by which we learn, move and integrate into our chosen field.
This, of course, was in a pre-digital world, so one had to venture out to succeed. But still to this day, I’m a firm believer that people “buy” from people; we want to see to believe. Engagement isn’t a “like”, it’s a fully immersive experience which makes a far deeper impact and comes with longer-term benefits; especially in Ireland, where we’re still a society who thrive on connection, something that’s been amplified by the past two years.
So, as we all start rebooting ourselves and our businesses, ready again for the real world, what role does networking play? How can we make best use of our time and energies? And what golden tips can we pick up from those who, whether by nature or design, happen to be great with their connections?
Transformation coach Niamh Ennis would be one of the first to say the idea of “networking” is one she finds a bit nerve-wracking. “But business is, at its core, all about building relationships; therefore, it is pretty difficult to see how you could get ahead without networking. “It is perfectly natural to feel safer in the virtual world; it feels more familiar there and we definitely feel less vulnerable in an environment that allows us to dress professionally on top and wear our PJs and slippers below! But the reality is that it is harder to make meaningful contacts in the virtual space. Being shy or introverted can cause us to overthink what we need to do when at a networking event. I’ve had the sleepless nights and the sweaty palms situation myself, but I’d say even the most gregarious amongst us can feel nervous at the prospect of shining in a group of (potential) power players, especially in 2022. The key is to go prepared with a specific objective or goal, and that will really help you focus on the job in hand.”
When it comes to a modus operandi, Niamh Ennis has some great advice: “One of the best tips I received at the start of my career was, if you’re going to a networking event alone, and have nobody to talk to, simply join the queue! Any queue; to leave in your coat, to register, to get coffee, for the toilets – it doesn’t matter what you’re there for, but it’s keeping you busy. Queuing is a very human activity and provides a very safe space for striking up conversation with the person in front or behind you. You effectively have a captive audience, and making conversation will come far more naturally to you both. There is also the benefit of having a limited time frame, so if you accidentally get in the queue next to the wrong person, you know you can escape soon.”
Another tip for a good modus operandi comes from Maryrose Lyons, founder of social media agency Brightspark Consulting: “As someone with my own business, which in turn needs clients, I take a proactive approach to networking, and so in 2019, I decided I would attend one good networking event every month. I chose different events, with different attendees so I could really extend my connections and I have to say, I’ve met all sorts of great people whom I’d never come into contact with naturally. Having this sort of accountability has also really helped keep my business evolving. As I’d also recently moved from Dublin to Athlone at that time, it was a super way to get the lie of the land and meet a whole new tribe of people in business.” Maryrose is also an excellent speaker and has huge knowledge about a particular field, and thus brings another dimension to networking. “Offer to do a presentation – it’s almost like a sample of your work, so it’s a great way to generate relevant new leads. And while we have all had a two-year hiatus, it’s great to be back to real-life interactions.”
Tara O’Connor is a seasoned event organiser and founder of The Designed Table. She’s a natural when it comes to entertaining people and makes a good point for overcoming the fear of venturing to something alone, or being unsure of who you might meet: “Take the plunge and host a table at a networking event or charity gala. Invite people with common ground or interests and be sure guests are introduced to each other properly. Sometimes I might even share headshots and short biographies of people in advance so they know who they are meeting.” One other key tip Tara shares: “I never drink alcohol when working and I always make sure there’s plenty of water, and non-alcoholic cocktails available so others can pace themselves as they wish.”
Overall, the one big trap about networking that everyone (Steven Bartlett included, by the sounds of things) falls into is overthinking it. Generally, it’s a drink, a chat and some sort of speech, presentation or “experience”. If you’re not feeling it, you can leave – or start up an alternative.
One of the best tips I received at the start of my career was, if you’re going to a networking event alone, simply join the queue! Queuing provides a very safe and easy space for striking up a conversation…
Getting proactive about your network is something that can reap huge dividends. Whether it’s something as simple as arranging after-work drinks for some kindred spirits, or starting up a club or an organised group to share connections, this sort of energy creates momentum. Whatever, don’t let 2022 run away on you. There’s a big, beautiful, real world of opportunity out there for the taking, and fortune really does favour the brave. Get out from behind that screen, book something now and attend soon. And if it’s an IMAGE event, I’ll see you there!
Extending from the first IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards, which started in 2007, we began hosting IMAGE events in 2012 with the mission to inform, inspire and connect our community of highly-skilled, successful businesswomen. Since then, I’ve learned the following:
1 Don’t skip the drinks/breakfast/coffee/mingling bit beforehand.
2 If you don’t know anyone else attending, don’t give up and retreat to a corner with your phone. I remember being the only journalist attending an Armani Beauty launch in London, arriving and realising not only did I not know anyone, but everyone else was getting stuck in, having a ball. I learned a skill… in these situations, walk through the chatting crowd with purpose, and head to the loo. Take a breath and think back where you’ll return to… were there pockets of others looking a bit lost? Were there a couple of friendly faces? Is there a queue you can join? In this case, I found the Irish sales director and hung out with him. I was so glad I didn’t wallflower it because we ended up back in the Metropolitan Hotel on Park Lane with U2, actress Milla Jovovich, and film director Wim Wenders. It was a cracker of an evening.
3 If you have time, get a blow-dry beforehand – you’ll feel so much more confident.
4 My mother taught me to have three topics of conversation ready before attending any event; I still always try to do this. You’ll never be caught short, especially if they are questions like, “Where would you recommend for a really good business lunch?”
5 Make use of social media (thanks, Steven Bartlett) for the follow-ups and to keep in touch.
Street style photography by Stefan Knauer. This article originally appeared in the Spring issue of IMAGE Magazine.
Tickets to IMAGE Business Club events are free to members of the IMAGE Business Club with a limited number available for purchase. You can also look forward to more IMAGE Business Club Live events, happening in August, September, November & December 2022. See image.ie/business-club for details.