Over the summer I decided to explore the many networking groups and events in Croydon, well at least as many as possible while managing a business and busy personal life.

I fear I only scratched the surface. One thing this town isn’t short of is opportunities to meet people from our booming business community. Fantastic entrepreneurs, successful and seasoned business owners, one man bands to global brands. There is something to learn from each and everyone you meet. Here’s some key thoughts I’d like to share.

Be kind and support others

Every networking group I visited from the Today Club to Croydon Chamber of Commerce was welcoming, and every member committed. Often people had been a part of a group for years, maybe even decades. I came across a strong sense of pride, affiliation and mutual support, and why the hell not? It’s so important to feel all those things.

All the networking groups out there work hard and have something positive to offer. Respecting that is important. It’s always a good idea to stay in touch, follow up with those you met on social media, and thank people for their hospitality.

Find your non negotiables

With so many networking opportunities on offer I spent some time thinking about the returns I needed for my business. For me it was important to have a transparent referral process, structured format and clear added value. BNI and Mastermind are good examples of this. I also wanted an organisation that was fighting for a change in policy, whether that was the gender pay gap, mental wellbeing or fairness for small business owners locally. FSB and Shaking Hands are active in these areas.

BUT equally important to me was fun and friendship. Yes networking is about business, but I wanted to feel part of something, a gang of cheerleaders spurring each other on. These factors I decided were my non-negotiables. So think about what matters to you before you set out.

Stay focused

If you work in PR you love socialising; networking was never going to be a chore for me. But whoever you are it’s still important that you remain business focused. Have 2 or 3 key messages in mind when you attend a networking event, not just your business spiel. This could be your latest achievement or big client you have just taken on. Make it a stand out fact that makes someone go ‘wow’.

Spend some time researching the guests before you go. What kind of businesses will be represented, what’s their size, trading history, structure, locality and likely needs? If you have the delegate list in advance, single out 4 or 5 people you want to talk to, then write down what outcomes you want from speaking to them. Lastly, see if they are on Linkedin so you can view their profile picture and recognise them on arrival.

When you meet them listen carefully to what they say and ask them what challenges they face in their business. This could be your big opportunity to tell them how you can solve their problems.

Knowing your audience and pitching to them as an individual is probably your most important strategy.

Step out of your comfort zone

To be a good networker you have to step out of your comfort zone, that means doing things that won’t come naturally at first. But you know what they say, practice makes perfect! If you see a group of people talking and would like to take part, gently ask ‘do you mind if I join you?’ and this will break the ice. Likewise if you have come with friends and colleagues don’t stick together and appear unapproachable, mingle and invite people to say hello.

I’ve often attended events with a panel of speakers or special guest. Perhaps he/she is a big name in business or successful entrepreneur you’ve always admired. Don’t assume that person is ‘out of your league’ and won’t want to speak to you. This could be your only opportunity to say hello. Why not open the conversation with a compliment about their work and then pose that burning question you’ve been dying to ask. Everyone likes being asked for their advice and you don’t know where the conversation will lead.

Don’t prejudge

I try not to judge people by what they are wearing, or how they appear. Looks can be very deceiving! I’ve had some of the best conversations when I was least expecting it, and the outcomes have been amazing. I approach everyone I meet with an open mind and look for common interests. It might not be anything to do with business; it might be that you’ve just enjoyed the chicken satay nibbles. Finding things you agree on and share will make your meeting memorable and could generate some surprising results.

Feel the fomo and let it go

I’ve found it hard to resist some networking opportunities, it’s that nagging ‘fear of missing of out’ (FOMO). Or maybe it’s just me?! If I didn’t go to something would I miss out on meeting THAT key person or THAT opportunity I’d been dreaming of? The truth is you can’t run a business and go to everything and shouldn’t go to events ‘just because’. You’ll quickly settle into your rhythm, learn to be selective and let it go.

Networking really is a lifelong pursuit and you’ll make mistakes, feel exhausted and eat many canapes along the way! But you’ll never stop learning, never stop growing in confidence, and NEVER leave those business cards at home. Enjoy the ride and enjoy each other’s company, and please share your own tips and advice below.

PS Sorry SELBN, CRX, 4networking and many more that I didn’t get to you this summer!

Lorraine Bridges
Director, Bare PR