When you’re in business you have to network.

It pains me to write that statement because networking is one of my most hated activities. Walking into a room full of strangers is terrifying, trying to break into a conversation is excruciating, basically, it’s not my favourite way to spend a few hours. The daft thing is that when I’m speaking to clients or the press to promote my business, I am actually using techniques that are important for networking, just in a different situation.

The way you interact with people, whether through networking or PR, is the same. You are using the same skill set and yet (to me at least) one is far easier to cope with than the other. For both, image matters a lot. Not just how you look, but also in the way you interact with others.

Listening and interacting

Looking at networking for a moment, we’ve all come across the bad networker. You know the one, they talk at you, don’t ask about you or your business, thrust their business card or brochure in your hand and then, after their allotted time, walk away and move onto their next victim.

The other type of bad networker is the timid wall flower who grabs a coffee and stands in the corner too afraid to speak to anyone (usually me). They won’t make eye contact with anyone and find it difficult to engage in small talk to break the ice.

But a good networker drives the conversation using open-ended questions. They chat in a friendly way gathering information as they go so they know whether they could be of use to you, or whether they know someone who may be able to help you. In doing so they are building a relationship with you. It’s very much the same technique used with clients – information gathering and solutions.

Eye contact

By maintaining eye contact I don’t mean trying to out stare each other. When speaking to someone try to keep eye contact rather than looking round the room as it looks as though you’re bored and seeking a more interesting person to speak to.

Looking at someone when speaking to them makes them feel as though you’re interested in what you have to say and will encourage them to open up to you.

If you were with a client you would look at them, so do the same when networking.

Dress to impress (within reason)

You have to look business-like, but that doesn’t mean wearing something you’re uncomfortable in. If you do, you’ll fidget and feel self-conscious. Dress smartly, but in a way that suits you whilst still showing you’re serious about business.

It’s a fine line to tread and I’m not about to be prescriptive about what you should or should not wear, but let’s face it, if you were a solicitor and turned up at a networking event in garish shorts and a t-shirt, no one will take you seriously.

It’s not all about you

The biggest mistake people make is talking about themselves all the time.

Always start out by asking about the person you’re talking to. Find out what they do, what their interests are etc. and offer any help and advice along the way. Eventually, the conversation will turn to you, giving you your opportunity to chat about your business and goals. If, as the conversation flows, you find areas where you can help each other (or know someone who can) that’s great because it’s the start of a budding relationship. But remember, not everyone you speak to will be in need of your services, so don’t focus on making sales.

Networking is about relationship building not selling.

As you have seen, networking and PR are fairly closely linked (although PR is going to be about you and your services or products). Both involve listening, eye contact, interaction and image. You may find that neither come naturally, but that’s OK, not everyone does. Just get out there and practice and what was once your worst nightmare will get easier.