Today's guest article comes from Liz Hardy, who specialises in Content Management and Editing. She shares some of her experience of networking, and why it is so important for businesses.
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The mention of ‘networking’ can strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident individuals. The following sums up the first of many networking experiences, and concludes with a few of my favourite survival tips, collected from others who’ve been doing this far longer than I have.

As a fresh-faced graduate, aged 22, my first official ‘networking’ experience was at a university alumni event, barely a month after my graduation ceremony. During my final year I’d established that I wanted to set up my own business, and I knew that networking was set to become a key part of my life. I lost count of how many times I heard the mantra “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know” (1). Never one to shy away from a challenge and jump in at the deep-end, I signed myself up for the first thing I could find. I’ll readily admit that I was terrified.

After a manic dash around the city centre, desperately trying to find the venue (2), I finally rocked up – palms sweating, heart racing, and half considering running straight back out of the door. The room seemed massive, there wasn’t a single face that I recognised, and conversations were already buzzing all around me. To the bar, then. Perhaps a glass of wine to steady the nerves and give me a moment to take in my surroundings, then it was time to seek out a small group of friendly-looking people who might be prepared to take me under their wing.

Two women stood out from the crowd through their body language. They were obviously in conversation, but had positioned themselves in a way that invited others to join (3), so, with some trepidation, I did. Thankfully, they saw me coming and I wasn’t forced to ‘hover’, waiting for a break in the conversation to introduce myself (4). After the standard ‘who are you and what do you do?’ bit, we talked for about 20 minutes before the speakers were due to start and we were all shepherded into another room. Two of us were relative newbies and clearly hadn’t sussed out how to ‘work’ a room just yet, but it was a great start and I’m still in touch with one of those ladies today.

After the speakers, everyone headed back out to the bar to enjoy the refreshments on offer, and to continue networking and catching up with old class mates. As most had now helped themselves to at least a couple of beverages from the bar, conversation was flowing, and everyone seemed far more at ease. We played a game of networking bingo which I won a prize for (5) and there were areas around the room where people could interact with each other over computer games, display stands and food.

I’ve no idea how many people I met over the course of that evening, but I am still in touch with a number of them a year later (6). They bounce my name around their own friends and contacts, and I would now go so far as to consider them friends of my own.

1. “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know” – whether you’re an employee, a business owner, or a job-hunter, so much of your career will be based on the people around you and how you interact with them. At the end of the day, people buy from people.

2. Know where you’re going. It’s genuinely gutting to show up late and find out you’ve missed something or someone. That said, a good ‘why I’m late’ story can be a great ice-breaker and gives an alternative topic of conversation which people will be able to relate to, so don’t let it get you down if you do arrive a little behind schedule. We’ve all got lost at some point!

3. Read the situation. You can usually tell from peoples’ stance whether they are open to extras joining their conversation. If a group is closed off, it’s perhaps best to find another to join, and wait for an opening later on.

4. Manners cost nothing. I would never recommend barging in on the middle of somebody else’s conversation – that’s not likely to make you very popular. Wait for a break in the dialogue to politely introduce yourself, but don’t be afraid to be a little cheeky. You’ll be amazed what you can get away with if you have a smile on your face. Remember: shy bairns get nought.

5. Don’t be afraid to get involved. It gets you noticed and gives people something to talk to you about. Don’t worry about looking a fool. Everyone else will admire your confidence in giving it a go, and whoever’s in charge will appreciate your efforts. If you don’t feel confident, fake it ‘til you make it.

6. Stay in touch. If you feel you’ve made a real connection with somebody at an event, exchange details or request them from the event organisers afterwards. Drop them an email or a tweet shortly after the event and follow through on any promises you make of information or connections. At the end of the day, you get what you give.

Liz Hardy