This post is republished from my original article on the Amex Open Forum website. It is part of "Small Business Friday" on this blog, where I share ideas and marketing techniques specifically to help small businesses stand out. To read more articles like this, visit the "Small Business Friday" category on this blog.
When it comes to networking, most of the advice that you see for small business owners is like Nike's great but relatively unhelpful slogan: Just Do It. Sure, networking is great – but how can you "just do it" most effectively? The challenge isn't how you can find more opportunities to network, but how to talk about business in an unobtrusive way. If you can learn to do this, you can turn any social situation into one that can benefit your business.
On the surface, this may seem like somewhat sneaky advice. After all, not every moment should be one in which you are looking to promote your business, should it? Yet when it comes to being a small business owner, you never really "clock out" because your business is a part of who you are. You should feel comfortable to talk about it in every situation, as long you can avoid becoming that blowhard at an event who won't stop trying to sell his or her company at every moment. How can you strike the right balance? Here are a few tips:
- Be a genuine conversationalist. The #1 most important thing to learn is how to be to have a great conversation. Here's a newsflash that might surprise you about this: it is NOT about what you say. Instead, you need to learn to listen intently and share personal stories while asking leading questions (questions that relate to the conversation and require more than just a yes or no response). If you can do these two things well, everyone you speak with will rate you as an amazing conversationalist and rate their conversations with you as among the best they had all night.
- Use a talkable nametag. One trick I use at almost every event I go to is that I have little chicken stickers that match the cover of my book and I put those on my nametag. It gives me a chance to add a bit of personality to my nametag but also to have a built in conversation piece. People want to know why I have that sticker there, and it gives me a chance not just to share the story of my book, but also to talk about my philosophy of business – which is that personality matters.
- Create a non-boring inspiration story. The nice thing about having your own business is that you are likely close enough to it to know the story behind its founding. This story is how you should describe what you do and why you do it. If you can do this in personal terms and offer a non-boring way to tell it, you can essentially talk about what you do and why you do it in a way that is simply letting people get to know you, rather than seeming like a poorly executed sales stunt.
- Spend time with "introducers." At every event there are people whose primarily skill is helping to connect individuals to others who share their interests or background. These are the people who always come to a moment in their conversations where they say something like "oh, you do _______? You should talk to _____." This moment can come from anyone in any conversation, and usually it is a result of having a great genuine conversation (see #1) and adding enough details about yourself that you can make it likely people will want to connect you with others.
- Plan to follow up with important connections. When you are at an event, the amount of time you are actually able to spend with the ideal connections for your business will likely be minimal, but that is ok. Your mindset going into the event should be that you want to connect with the right people for your business with the noted promise of following up with them after the event is over. Then make sure to follow up.
- Respect the event. Every event has a format, whether it has some kind of performance and then time to mingle, or a cocktail hour to start the evening before adjourning to tables for dinner. Be sure to respect the type of event you are at. If it is a networking event, clearly you can talk about your company and what you do right away. At a more personal event, you need to select who you are talking to and adapt how you talk about your company and what you do to the situation.