Sunday, 2 October 2011

Uh-oh...not MORE talk about networking...?

Sorry, in fact, no why am I even apologising?! Networking is something that we are all increasingly having to do, albeit not always on a level with the movers and shakers that bring in clients to a law firm like mine, but I think many people are often surprised when I tell them that my job does actually involve a fair amount of networking these days. Don't worry - those of you who have read my Thing 7 post on networking will know that it's certainly not my favourite thing either, but the reason I make no apology for this post is because I just want to take some time to reflect upon and share some of the excellent advice I picked up in a recent training session.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend an internal training session on Networking that was primarily being run for fee-earners, but was also attended by myself and a couple of people from Marketing. It was run by the absolutely fantastic Nick Davies of the The Really Great Training Company (check out his blog here) and I have to say, despite having attended a number of seminars and sessions on 'how to network' over the last couple of years, I have never been as inspired by any other session as much as I was by this one. By the end of it, I genuinely felt that for the first time in my professional life, I had some really good tips and tricks to try out and I actually felt something approaching an albeit nervous excitement - but excitement all the same - when I thought about the next library event that I was attending, where I could possibly give this a go.

I'll just say from the outset that I think it was Nick's sense of humour and his delivery style that immediately made it easy for me to relate to him, and made me quickly see that this was not going to be your typical, bog-standard training session!

One of the first tasks we did was getting to know the person next to us, then report back to the rest of the group on what we had learned about that person. Have to admit I found this exercise really tricky - that kind of chat doesn't come easily to me - I hate asking people questions, I can never think of what to ask next because I am so stressed out I don't actually hear their answers...which made for a fun 'report' back to the group! I actually had to admit that I hadn't written any answers down and so couldn't remember more than a couple of sentences about where she lived and what she enjoyed doing! Nick was very nice about it though at least!

Making that kind of small talk is definitely the hardest thing for me. I can chat away happily if someone else asks ME questions, but I am so inept when it comes to fulfilling this role myself - or at least, that's how I perceive myself. As I mentioned earlier, I get so caught up in worrying what to say next, I don't listen to what the person is actually saying - but it's not being rude intentionally, I just nod and smile but it's not really going in! However, we talked about the importance of 'agressive' listening - listening with both your eats AND your eyes - so don't let your eyes wander as the other person is talking, because I am sure we would all agree that it's really off-putting to be talking to someone, and see them looking over your shoulder as you do so! This is definitely something I would like to work on, and I did try and put this tip into practice a week later, when I had to attend a CILIP training seminar. I got talking to a girl I knew very vaguely through a former colleague, and I really did try harder than ever to just focus ON her, not sneak glances round the room to see who else had come in, and also properly listen to what she was telling me - and as a result, I was able to ask a few pertinent questions. It may sound like a simple thing, but it is amazing how many people at these events DON'T truly listen and focus on you, yet if you can develop that skill, it is definitely one which makes you a 'good' networker.

The session was Nick was absolutely packed with other example scenarios and how best to deal with them - I genuinely got so much out of it. One thing we did as a group was to establish what skills make a 'good' networker - obviously I mentioned being able to genuinely listen to people above, but we also decided that making people feel comfortable and at ease is another key characteristic. If you are able to be versatile and adapt yourself to talking to people of different levels in a firm, say, then this goes a long way. Another aspect we focused on was that a good networker is someone who knows how to terminate a conversation in a polite but firm manner. So for example, if you have been talking to someone for some time and you simply want to move on, Nick advised NOT to use the age-old excuse of saying you need to use the bathroom or get another drink, because there is the risk that they will do the same - which can be a little disconcerting - and also means you aren't able to move on as you won't have extricated yourself from the conversation at all. It also doesn't work because often, you end up having to sneak back into the room so as you don't get caught up talking to that person again - which is far from professional. No, one of the best ways is simply to say something like how much you have enjoyed talking with that person, but that there are a few others you need to catch up with, so you better get on and do so. That way, you have terminated the situation in a polite way with no awkwardness should you bump into each other later on again....

I think that particular point is undoubtedly another one that I have always struggled with - I feel terribly rude if I terminate a conversation with someone I have just met at an event, and consequently I have occasionally felt very awkward, as though we should be moving on but don't quite know how to get out of the conversation! I have to admit, I think I have definitely used the old drink top-up or buffet visit as an excuse before, but it's something I'll try to avoid in future! I have been lucky in that I have never been followed to the buffet table, but it would definitely be pretty awkward if that did happen, when all you want to do is move on from that person!

We talked a bit about how to actually get started talking to people at events, and one thing we focused on was how you can use the refreshments table as a chance to get talking to someone! If you are over there, say pouring a cup of coffee, and someone comes up beside you, you could ask them if they want coffee, and if they say yes, then give them yours and pour another a cup - or the same with the milk, if they have already poured the coffee! Doing something for someone else in this way is quite clever, because it's almost human nature for that person then to feel gratitude to you, and want to repay you - and the way in which they do repay you is with their time - and bingo! You have made your first contact!

Another thing that came up that I REALLY struggle with in every walk of life, not just at networking events, but even just being introduced to a new joiner in our firm, is remembering names. Several of us admitted that we simply cannot remember names 10 seconds after being told them. Nick explained that it's not so much not being able to remember; in fact the name almost gets lost in all the other things we are picking up on that person in those crucial first few seconds of meeting. So we are shaking a person's hand and thinking about the handshake, taking in their outward appearance, thinking about who is with them....the list goes on and so it's no wonder we simply don't take in the name! The best tip Nick could give us here is say the name back to them immediately, and then use it in the next few minutes of conversation if possible. So on being introduced to someone, rather than just saying 'pleased to meet you', add in their name to the end of that sentence. I think this is a fantastic way of consolidating names in your head, and I did put it into practice when I met a couple of our new trainees for the first time. It's definitely a tip that is transferrable to so many situations, and one that I find very helpful to bear in mind.

Another skill of a good networker is 'connecting', so introducing people you know to people you have just met, or vice versa. This is another way of moving on from a situation - if you introduce the person you have been talking to, to someone else you know, then you can gracefully remove yourself from the situation. Similarly, it can be useful to ask the person you have been talking to if they know anyone else, and  if so, perhaps they could introduce you to that person. Basically, the best networkers are those who excel in bringing other people together, as much as being able to just get talking to others themselves. I have to admit this prospect does intimidate me a little bit; I have never considered myself as the sort of person who could facilitate this kind of networking , but after talking about it in this way, it made me feel that perhaps I could.

Overall I found this session extremely helpful - we covered a lot of territory and as I mentioned earlier, it was one of the few training sessions I have ever been to where I came away feeling very enthusiastic about the subject, and that I had really been able to get a lot out of it. I think the main thing that Nick instilled in me was that we all have the potential to be 'good' networkers, and while it might not be something that we ever think, 'yay! A chance to network!' - we can get to the point where we are not filled with utter dread/nerves/apprehension at the prospect, and end up so worked up that we get little out of it, and can only focus on making our escape as soon as possible. This was proven when I managed to put a bit of it into practice at the CILIP seminar recently, and I hope to keep these skills in mind going forward at other events.

All in all it was a morning very well spent indeed.

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