Networking is important in any business, and freelancers need it more than most. As independent contractors, we sometimes work in isolation for hours, maybe even days, on end.
But the truth is, we all need interaction and support, not to mention clients and trusted partners.
And networking is a sure-fire way to build relationships that can lead to opportunities throughout the course of your career.
Let’s take a look at some strategies and techniques to make the most of your next networking event.
When is Networking Important?
Even if you’re not looking for a career change or entering a new job market, there are always good reasons to network.
Whether you’re at your child’s basketball game or a neighborhood block party, one of the first questions you’re asked when meeting someone new is some variation on, “What type of work do you do?”
This is the perfect time to introduce yourself and find out how you might add value to the relationship.
No, you’re not trying to “sell yourself.” Just have a genuine conversation with a new contact and be open to opportunities that may arise from there.
Frequent networking is key to making and maintaining connections with valuable contacts. You want to follow up with the people you meet to build and maintain relationships that can be useful to both parties.
Expanding your professional circle is one of the best business building strategies because you never know where a connection might lead.
Think about why you are attending this particular event and what you can do to get the most out of it.
Are you looking to meet trusted partners in your field or do you need contacts to assist with specialties outside of your skill set?
Brainstorm your biggest reasons for attending and figure out the best ways to go about achieving the results you need.
Learn about the format. Will there be speakers? Is there an agenda? What’s the dress code? Research online before the event.
Make a plan. Have your elevator pitch and business cards at the ready. Practice a few key questions and responses out loud in the days before the event so you’ll feel comfortable and the conversations flow naturally.
Tips for Shy First-Timers
Take or meet up with a colleague if you’re really nervous. But don’t stay glued to their side, though.
Remember that the point is to make new connections, so start by planning to and actually having conversations with two people you don’t know. If this is your first event, there’s no need to overdo it and make yourself even more uncomfortable.
Make it a point to introduce yourself to others, especially if you’re shy. Give a good handshake, keep eye contact, and repeat the person’s name aloud to help fix it in memory.
Smile, and be friendly and forthcoming.
Try to avoid giving in to nervous habits! The other person will feel uneasy in your presence and try to quickly make an escape if your body language displays your discomfort.
Stay at least long enough to get a feel for the organization and its culture. Are they boisterous and outgoing or reserved and professional? Where do you fit in, and what can you bring to the group?
In the end, just be yourself. Don’t try to put on an act that’s hard to keep up and easy to see through.
Stand Out, Make Connections, and Maximize the Experience
Have meaningful conversations with those you meet instead of boring chit-chat.
Ask good questions like, “So what do you like best about what you do?” People get really excited when given a chance to talk about themselves and their interests. And you can learn more about their pain points and business needs.
Asking questions and really listening is much easier than rambling on about yourself anyway, especially if you are shy. So really listen! And ask more questions!
To get yourself remembered, try to be sure the people you are connecting with are enjoying the conversation.
By being a good listener, asking good questions, and giving your undivided attention, your connections will feel good about you. That will make them more receptive when you share information and follow up as promised.
A Few Do’s and Don’ts
Do think about any connections you can make from within your existing network to new people you meet at events. Make introductions to someone else who might have a solution, rather than only promoting yourself and your services.
Don’t just rudely insert yourself into conversations. Listen for a while, and join in with a relevant question at an appropriate time.
Remember, asking a question will be easier than making a comment that you then have to justify, possibly to a hostile audience. Ask first, and let the group or maybe even your ideal client take the conversation from there.
It goes without saying that you should never ditch a conversation to go chase after someone else you’d rather be talking to.
That kind of behavior does not go unnoticed and does not speak well of your character, much less your professionalism.
And NEVER drink too much in an effort to get “relaxed” because it always backfires!
Do be courteous and thank the organizers on your way out. Knowing that they have produced a successful event encourages them to continue making these opportunities available.
Plus, it’s just simply polite to let them know their efforts are appreciated.
Do take notes after the event while it’s still fresh in your mind. Who did you promise to follow up with and why? Do you have an associate who might benefit from the expertise of someone you met at the function? Is this a group you will be joining or attending more events with? Were you comfortable with the atmosphere and the group’s purpose/mission?
Best Places for Networking
There are literally hundreds of opportunities for networking through local and national business groups, industry associations, and professional organizations.
These and many others hold conferences, trade shows, fundraisers, training/classes, meetups, and other functions.
No matter the size of your community, there will certainly be networking opportunities available to you. But don’t neglect to expand your reach whenever possible.
Industry conferences, for example, usually provide a chance to add to your skills and learn new things in addition to being great networking resources.
The growing popularity of shared office spaces opens additional possibilities for networking. These “coworking” environments can be rented by the hour or for a monthly membership fee.
They are especially attractive to tech startups, freelancers, and creative types, so you might find that the independent contractor in the next office has the very solution you are looking for.
Online you will find LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms; various user groups; and a multitude of virtual events.
Unconventional Networking Opportunities
Don’t limit yourself only to business associations, though. Joining groups devoted to your hobbies and personal interests gives you additional outlets to express yourself and grow outside of your usual working environment.
You’ll also be opening yourself up to opportunities that otherwise might be missed.
Although social gatherings are often overlooked, they can be valuable resources if you take advantage of them the right way.
Even in a non-professional setting, you are likely to meet someone who needs your services or products or can help one of your associates with their problems.
In conclusion, don’t think of networking as a dreaded, degrading act of “selling yourself.”
It’s really a proven way to make connections and grow relationships by sharing your knowledge and abilities with those who need them, and accepting the helping hands of colleagues when they are offered.
Truly connecting with others is rewarding in so many more ways than just professionally, and is a key resource in any business strategy.
Take the time to develop an action plan for your next networking event, and learn from each experience.
Practice your networking skills to get the biggest payoff in the end. And before you know it you can go from being a nervous wreck to a competent, confident networking pro!
This article is part of an ongoing series on how small businesses can improve their procedures and processes to maximize their growth. Are there topics you’d like to see in the future? Feel free to offer suggestions in the comments!