The word ‘networking’ used to fill me with dread. When I became self-employed I heard it repeated everywhere like a mantra – the key to building a successful business was networking. If I wanted to be a successful writer then I would have to roll up my sleeves and dive in, milling about huge rooms full of stiff people in suits, giving compliments to important people who I couldn’t stand, wearing a fake smile and thrusting a business card at anyone who strayed near me.
This sense of dread continued until I read a book about networking. The book said it wasn’t helpful to network with people you didn’t like. Phew! Previously I’d thought that networking was about getting as many people as possible to know and like me – regardless of what I thought of them. But the book asked me if I’d WANT to do business with people I didn’t respect or like. Umm – actually, no. I’ve done this in the past and have always regretted it – however much I’d needed the money. So if it isn’t helpful to network with people I don’t like, then could networking simply be finding new people who I want to spend time with and spending more time with them? Could it really be that simple?
Last week I was listening to a friend talk about several new opportunities that had come her way. One was through an ex-colleague, one was through a friend she’d once met on a course, and one was through an ex-tutor. She’d made a good impression on each of these people, by being herself. She didn’t know that she’d been ‘networking’, but all of these opportunities were due to connections – or relationships – that she’d picked up along the way.
Once I let go of trying to be someone else, the world of networking suddenly became a world of meeting new and interesting people. An acquaintance introduced me to a poet who is now one of my closest friends (and a huge creative support). An occasional contact of mine mentioned over coffee that she knew a literary agent, who represented me for several years. Someone I introduced myself to several years ago has just published a link to one of my articles, drawing hundreds of new readers to my blog. It sometimes seems like magic, but really it’s just the power of people liking people.
Below are my suggestions about how to be a good networker to get you started – have fun!
1. Think about how you can help
A good networker is always thinking about how they can help people out. This might be an introduction to another contact, a book recommendation, or the offer to give feedback on some of their work. Apart from people remembering you as helpful, this has the added advantage of making you feel good.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Most people feel flattered when they’re asked for help, and are pleased to be able to offer it. Don’t worry about imposing – if they don’t have the time or the energy to give you what you’ve asked for then it’s up to them to say no. You can ask for: advice on where to sell your paintings, feedback on your photography, the name of their accountant etc.
3. Be yourself
If networking is about building authentic connections with people then there’s no point in pretending you’re really into long distance running when you only ever run for the bus.
4. Find new opportunities to network
Go to events you’d enjoy anyway and keep your eyes open for people who interest you. Find a networking group especially for creative types, go on a course, or attend a local art opening. Sometimes you might need to visit an event regularly before you build up relationships. The opportunities to network online are endless - Twitter, blogs, Facebook... these tools have all worked very well for me.
5. Network with people you want to keep in touch with anyway
If you like and respect someone enough to keep in touch with them then that should be enough. You may be useful to each other’s careers at some point and you may not - let go of any expectations.
Enjoy building your network, be patient, and marvellous things will begin to happen!
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