I love networking. I really love it. It's one of my favourite parts of my job. But it hasn't always been. I started at Softwire as a coder, and worked for 10 years on the technical side of the company. If you had told me then that I would love networking I would have been astonished.
So in case you missed the thinly veiled message there, I am telling you that you too can love networking. The reason for this is that networking is essentially about making friends and being nice to people. So you don't need to be a power hungry empire builder, smooth talking salesperson, or exuberant "people person" to enjoy it.
Here are my five top tips for how to get the most out of any networking event.
1. Don't sell
I've found that most people who hate networking do so because they think it is all about selling. They think the aim is to sidle up to people and talk about your product/service/self until they give in and write a cheque. Not only is this bad selling, it is definitely terrible networking. Networking is about connecting with people. People don't like people who are out for themselves, or are trying to pressure them into something. So don't do it.
2. Have tactics to get into a conversation...
When I started networking there were two parts that I found particularly hard, and that I still find difficult. Luckily both are susceptible to tactics and the more you try this the better you will get. The first is how to start a conversation. It is rare that you will enter a networking event and find friendly welcoming people waiting with open arms for you. Instead you will find that everyone there is either 1. deep in conversation with someone that looks as close as a childhood friend, 2. holding court with a group of spellbound listeners or 3. engrossed in their smartphone. In order to have a conversation you are going to have to disturb someone. As you steel yourself to do so, remember that this is perfectly normal! It is how all the existing conversations started. Prepare by having a list of questions to start a conversation with. Questions are your best weapon for networking - everyone loves to talk about themselves. If you can get in and ask something simple like "how are you finding the event?", you will find yourself networking like a pro in no time.
3. ...and out again
The next most difficult part of networking comes after this. You have steeled yourself to get chatting only to find that you are stuck in a boring, fruitless or awkward conversation, perhaps even one where the other person, not having read this article, is trying to sell you something. If you remain all evening in one conversation that is neither useful nor enjoyable, you might as well not have bothered going. You need a list of excuses prepared in advance to allow you to end such conversations. Find a need for another coffee, claim to be off to use the facilities or fake a prior engagement (people do agree to meet up at networking events). The best technique is honesty - "I need to get networking and meet some more people"!
4. Be nice
Networking at its best is a room full of people being completely selfless. It is the real world equivalent of that nauseating parable of people feeding each other with two foot long chopsticks. A great tip for taking away networking nerves is to focus on the person you are talking to. How could you help them? Can you introduce them to someone within your organisation that they need to meet? Do you have a friend who is in their area? Can you help with any of their projects? By worrying about them, rather than you, you will soon find that you've made a friend and are starting to enjoy yourself.
5. Find ways to enjoy yourself
"It's not what you know, it's who you know" - whether you think this maxim a damning indictment of the modern world, or a great explanation of how to get ahead, it speaks volumes for how important networking is as a skill. To get ahead you will need to master it. So take every shortcut you can. Enjoy the free coffee, or beer, or pastries. Talk about your hobbies as well as your work. Make a beeline for people who look friendly and enjoyable to talk to. The happier you are at the event, the more successful you will find it.
Zoe is giving a Dummies Guide to Networking for Startups talk at Digital Shoreditch (Shoreditch Town Hall) on 23 May.
Managing Director of Softwire, technology and backgammon presenter. Plus a little bit of new music radio.