The best business is done at lunch. But does working the room scare you? Successful networking is easy. Just follow the rules of schmooze
Love it or hate it, schmoozing is an essential part of business. The important thing is looking like you mean it.
Schmooze is a derogatory word, says Jane Sweeney, the managing director of Porter Novelli and tireless dinner-party hostess. “It must never be insincere, hard sell, or about scoring a hit,” she says. “It’s about building a relationship of mutual benefit. Schmoozing that is cynical or insincere doesn’t work. People have their radars on for that.”
Networking involves a complex mix of interactions between people and you have to be clear about what you want to achieve, says Sarah Trotman, owner and organiser of the Small Business Expo and a consummate networker. “But calling it schmoozing suggests something a bit sleazy with people who are out for what they can get, rather than building genuine relationships.”
But being sincere doesn’t mean you can’t also be intentional. Before rocking up for the free drink and nibbles, take time to establish the function’s purpose and a credible reason for being there. “Everyone is time-poor,” says Sweeney. “You’re there to have interesting conversations, to meet and introduce people of mutual interest. It’s part of being good at your job—most people get that.”
Ask yourself what you can add to the gathering. “Have your own elevator pitch ready,” says Nigel Murphy, director of public affairs for AUT University—and also known as ‘The Schmooze’. “Then if anyone asks you can rattle off your two or three key points in an engaging way.”
One of Sweeney’s tactics is to ask for the guest list in advance, and highlight the people she might want to meet. “Think of a reason to meet them that’s more than just ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you,’” she says. “I once introduced myself to [New Zealand Institute CEO] David Skilling by telling him how much I admired his ability to deliver the worst news with the most beatific smile on his face.”
Do some investigation beforehand, so you know what some of the key people’s current concerns are, and what might press their buttons.
In the first instance, Sweeney recommends you talk about anything but work. But whatever you do, don’t start by handing out your card—that’s just naff.
Personality is no excuse
Being shy doesn’t mean you can’t master some basic conversational arts. Trotman, for example, has thousands of contacts on her books and her last expo was attended by over 7,000 people, yet she considers herself to be a quite private person. “The ability to network is not something that comes naturally, but something I’ve learned,” she says.
As Katherine Hepburn once said, if you have to support yourself, you “bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting—and you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself”. The quickest way to be interesting is to be interested. When you can’t think of a single witty or insightful thing to say, ask questions. Most people are happy to talk about themselves, says Murphy. “Asking questions is the best way to appear interested, even when you are not.”
Brief your beloved
Standing in the corner talking only to your spouse, partner or date is bad form. Even worse is leaving them to flounder about among strangers. Partners can be a huge asset, says Sweeney, but they need to understand your business and what connections are important. She recommends briefing partners before an event as to what it’s about, who’ll be there, and who’d be good to introduce to whom.
Make yourself useful
Some business cards you collect out of courtesy, others because you want them. Murphy recommends following up interesting leads the next week with a phone call or an email. Before doing so, think about what might be a logical extension of your original conversation. Was anything left dangling? Did you offer to send them a relevant article or introduce them to a third party? Or you might simply suggest meeting for coffee to continue whatever it was you were discussing. Don’t be afraid to consider hosting an event where you invite interesting people you have met that who are of a similar age or outlook, says Sweeney.