The phrase “networking event” sounds like a cringey waste of time, doesn’t it? Even as a verified extravert, the thought of talking to strangers and making meaningless conversation gives me a visceral reaction – pounding heart and sweaty palms as I imagine all of the awkward silences.

At first, networking can seem intimidating, or at a minimum just one more social obligation to squeeze into your already busy life. But as you learn the power of growing your professional network, you’ll find there is a lot more to networking than exchanging business cards and making nervous small talk over cold appetizers.

I recently had coffee with a colleague who had been through some tough changes at work. As she got her career back on track and regained her confidence, she reached out to her network and was intentional about reconnecting with former coworkers and nurturing new connections. She devoted time to weekly networking. The efforts paid off – her new contacts led to an even better career opportunity.

When I first started my business, I had a website and a lot of ideas, but no clients. Networking was a way for me to establish relationships and communicate value to business owners who would eventually become clients, business-owner friends and even trusted advisers in my business.

What exactly is business networking?

 Networking is a way to build and nurture relationships. It’s not a contest to see who can forge the most LinkedIn connections (I’m at about 2,000) or attend every single event in town (Watch out for the third Thursday: the most popular night of the month). It’s about forming genuine connections that result in synergies and benefit both parties.

What events should I attend?

There are all kinds of networking opportunities. Speaking engagements and roundtable discussions can provide an opportunity for you to share your knowledge and expertise with a group and engage in meaningful dialogue with others. Or if being the center of attention is not your thing, try attending lectures, conferences or workshops where you can focus more on participation. Evening happy hours or morning coffee meetups (which are plentiful, so choose wisely) offer opportunities to chat in a relaxed setting over a beverage. You can choose to focus on alumni groups, golf outings, communities of interest or volunteer groups. Find a time, place, level of comfort and area of interest that works best for you.

Why bother?

· Opportunity: The most obvious benefit of networking is the opportunities it can bring. Whether it’s new clients, job leads, partnerships or friendships, networking can open new doors.

· Knowledge: Ever faced a difficult problem at work? Networking connects you with people who have been there and done that. You can tap into their expertise, learn from their experiences and gain knowledge to help you navigate your own professional journey.

· The human element: Building relationships in person allows you to showcase your personality, passion and expertise in a way that a cold email or LinkedIn message simply can’t match.

· Stay updated: Networking keeps you in the loop about the latest trends, technologies and developments in your field.

· Boost your confidence: Networking forces you out of your comfort zone. The more you interact with new people, the more your confidence grows. This confidence boost can be a game-changer when it comes to pitching ideas, negotiating deals or simply speaking up in meetings.

Tips for effective networking:

· Be curious: You will make more connections by asking people about themselves, their job, career path or even their hobbies. Come prepared with questions you can ask or conversation starters you can use.

· Be genuine: Authenticity goes a long way. People respond better to sincerity than to a rehearsed elevator pitch.

· Give before you get: Networking is a two-way street. Offer your help or expertise without expecting an immediate return. One popular networking group calls this the Giver’s Gain.

· Follow up: Don’t let those business cards gather dust. Follow up with an email or LinkedIn message to reinforce the connection. Move conversations from a group event to a more personal coffee or lunch meeting.

· Diversify your networks: Don’t limit yourself to industry-specific events. You never know where your next big opportunity might come from – a chance encounter at the golf course or even a friend’s dinner party.

· Be consistent: Repetition is key. In order to do business with you, people need to know, like and trust you. Such relationships are built over time.

Now you can see that business networking isn’t just a cringey necessary evil – it’s a powerful tool for personal and professional growth. So, embrace a few networking events, strike up conversations and remember that every new connection is a potential door to exciting opportunities. Who knows? Your next big break could be just a handshake away.

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