How to network

Networking events can throw the best of vac schemers or trainees. Professional public speaker and presentation coach Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group gives his list of what to do and what not to do the next time you need to attend one of these potentially torturous affairs.

There are certain phrases which can strike a feeling of dread in many people – fancy dress, audience participation, contemporary dance and networking event. Picture the scene – you’ve just joined a top firm, it’s all started off well and then the suggestion comes down that you should get out and do a bit of networking.

Let’s face it, you’d sooner sit through three hours of contemporary dance than have to go up to complete strangers who all seem to know one another and start a conversation. However, being a lawyer requires you to have a solid network of contacts not just for you but also for your clients and it is a very important part of the job.

You will, therefore, be pleased to hear that there are certain things you can do to make the experience not just bearable but actually quite fun and very valuable.

  • Think of networking events as business development and relationship building opportunities. Before you even have to start developing new relationships, start with what you already have, such as law school and university colleagues, lecturers, advisors, anyone you have already worked with and so on. Yesterday’s law school friend could be tomorrow’s general counsel. Relationship development doesn’t just happen at networking events. There are endless opportunities to build relationships and wherever possible try to go to these, such as sporting events, parties, business group lunches, fundraisers, seminars and conferences
  • Prepare before you go to an event. If possible, find out who is going to be there and make a target list of who you want to meet. Think about who might be able to introduce you to your target list and where you have actual names in mind, research their backgrounds and respective companies. Make sure you have plenty of business cards with you.
  • Eat beforehand, unless it is actually a lunch or dinner. The event should not be viewed as a free ‘eat and drink all you can’ opportunity. You will find it quite a challenge to engage in the traditional form of greeting, the handshake, with a plate of canapés in one hand and a glass of pinot noir in the other. Equally, it is worth remembering that there was a good reason why your parents told you not to eat and talk at the same time.
  • Practise introducing yourself so that you come across as coherent and credible in that you can actually open a conversation in straightforward sentences and without becoming memorable for the wrong reasons before you’ve even got going. You don’t have to do a whole sales pitch on people – a networking faux pas if ever there was – but it is worth having something prepared which gives the person you are connecting with some basic and relevant information on you. Have some topics of conversation ‘ready to go’. Be aware of what is going on in the news, sport, current events and so on. Arrive early and make sure you are dressed appropriately and smartly.
  • Keep your phone or Blackberry on silent and don’t use it to pretend to look busy. All you will do is draw attention to yourself as the person who is pretending to look busy. It’s not a school disco – don’t hang around the edges; get into the centre of the room and circulate but don’t keep moving around aimlessly as if you are on your way to someone you’ve just seen across the room, unless, of course, you have just seen someone across the room, because when you are spotted travelling past the same group for the fifth time you will appear at best desperate and at worst a little unhinged.
  • If there is a group you wish to join, pick your time carefully. A group of old friends who’ve just gathered and are reminiscing about that hilarious dinner they all had after their last deal completed will most likely not particularly welcome their banterings being interrupted with your introduction, however well-rehearsed. When you judge the time is right, without giving the impression that you are eavesdropping, ask if they mind if you join them. This is an event to build relationships – it is not a private party – they are not gong to refuse you. People on their own should not be ignored, they may well be grateful for the approach and you never know who they might turn out to be but avoid obvious name-tag sizing up.
  • When you’ve introduced yourself and have made a point of listening to and remembering their names, don’t see this as an opportunity to try out your latest stand-up routine. Feel free to engage in some light-hearted witty exchange but steer clear of expressing any contentious opinions or complaining about, well anything really – it marks you down as a negative person. And while we’re on the subject, remember that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit and not generally appreciated.
  • Try to find common ground as quickly as you can. Think of this as an exciting challenge, as this will help create and build all-important rapport. Ask open questions but don’t interrogate and once you’ve established a rapport you’re well on your way to developing a relationship. It’s all about the relationship, not the sell. No one ever really wants to be sold to, let alone at a social event. Don’t talk about yourself all the time and don’t interrupt. Listen and demonstrate that you have done so by asking relevant questions. Be open and engaging – stand tall with open posture, don’t mumble or gabble and remember to smile. If you are a natural smiler, great; if you have been born with the facial expression of a grouper fish then you will need to practise your smiling.
  • After 10 minutes or so, it’s generally time to move on. Ask for business cards and thank people for their time. Tell them that you’ve enjoyed talking to them, even if you haven’t, and ask them if you can follow up with them at a later stage. Don’t be afraid of ending a conversation and moving elsewhere in the room otherwise you could end up spending the entire time with someone who didn’t even make it onto your second reserve list. Equally don’t make others feel trapped. Everyone is there for the same reason and it’s fine to suggest you join another group or ask them if there is anyone they could introduce you to or simply suggest moving on to meet some new people. Whatever you do though, be graceful and polite.
  • Finally, you absolutely must follow up with people as soon as you can and ideally within a week. You could ask for some information or email them something of interest, an article perhaps, and suggest a further meeting. Having started the process of building the relationship it is now up to you to ensure that you develop it and keep it alive.

Building business relationships is one of the most important aspects of your career and the sooner you put yourself into situations and try out some of the tips above the quicker you will find that networking is not actually a form of social torture but actually an opportunity to expand your opportunities and contacts and move up to the next level.