1. Find out more about networking
Start finding out more about good networking and networking strategies by using TedTalks, Openmindtalks, or relevant literature. Also ask friends, acquaintances, and colleagues for advice. Remember that networking should not only involve your business contacts, your social contacts may prove to be useful resources as well! Examine what social contacts you already have and consider how you could intensify or expand them. Meet your friends and their friends, but also get to know new people in your everyday life. Ask yourself: What kind of activities do I like? Where could I meet people with the same interests? Join e.g. a sports club or other interest groups or ask your friends to join their clubs.
2. Improve your confidence to approach other people and improve your small talk skills
In order to improve your networking skills for a professional environment, it makes sense to first practice small talk and networking with acquaintances to become more confident. When you feel comfortable with your small talk skills, make a conscious effort to meet new people and practice your skills at events and celebrations in your social circle.
Before you go to a social event, practice introducing yourself and think about how you want to present yourself. Practice in front of a mirror and pay attention to your body language. When introducing yourself at an event that is work-related, always give your full name. Think about an elevator pitch: two or three sentences about you, your career, and why you are interested in this particular event. It will give you security to know what to say and simultaneously functions as a conversation starter.
Think of a suitable opener for small talk and try it out with friends and family before you go to a professional event.
Here are some suggestions:
- If there was a talk or presentation: “What did you think of the lecture?”
- If there food: “What can you recommend?”
- At a conference: “Which speaker/panel are you particularly interested in?”
- At a party: “How do you know the host?”
- “What do you do for a living?”
- “Where do you live?”
At best, this then develops into a conversation. Other appropriate small talk topics include travel and hobbies, or everything that keeps the conversation light and pleasant. Avoid potentially controversial topics such as money, status symbols, death, politics, religion, or and gossip. Be positive and keep the following in mind during the conversation:
- Adjust your use of language and pace of speech to the person you talk to.
- Listen attentively.
- Smile and hold eye contact.
- Pay attention to an open body language. Turn to the person you are talking to.
- Follow the conversation by nodding and agreeing, but do not overdo it.
- Ask open, interest-related questions.
Try to observe other people’s natural ways of communicating and see if there is anything you can copy from them.
3. Participate in networking events
To apply the skills you have trained in the business world, find out if there are any networking events take place in your area that are relevant for your start-up. Do not participate blindly in countless events, but try to come up with a networking strategy. Depending on your business, different events could be a good networking opportunity: (founder) fairs, alumni events, conferences, workshops, but also cultural events.
Here are some tips:
- Prepare yourself for the event by finding out about participating guests so that you can prepare interesting topics for discussion. Modify your small talk questions and openers to the individual persons you plan to talk to.
- If you find it difficult to attend the event alone, ask an acquaintance, friend, or colleague to accompany you.
- Get professional business cards, but hand them only to people you would like to add to your network.
- Talk to a few people and take your time rather than rushing from one contact to another.
- If there is one, take part in the social program, like excursions or parties, of the event to get in contact with the people. The more relaxed atmosphere makes it easier to meet people. Similarly, coffee breaks and meals are usually a good opportunity to approach people.
After the event, it is important to follow up on your new contacts. Therefore you should get in touch about 72 hours after the first meeting by writing an email, making a phone call, or arranging an appointment. At least send a Linkedin or Xing request. Come up with a strategy for long-term maintenance of your network: How often do you think it will be useful to contact a certain person? Set up reminders for the next time you should contact someone.
As you are starting your self-employment, you will need a broad variety of contacts. One option to meet new people who are coping with similar challenges and questions like you are co-working spaces. Find out if there are any shared work space projects or organizations in your town and see if your business would fit in. Some cities actually offer special co-working spaces for start-ups. The exchange with other new entrepreneurs can be very helpful, especially at the beginning. Always remember to cultivate contacts to people who are already established with their business as well, though.
4. Use online networks
Even if you successfully establish contacts in person and offline, online networking platforms are very important for maintaining and enhancing your business network. So inform yourself about different networking platforms and decide which one suits your needs best.
Below, we briefly introduce the two most popular options:
XING is career-oriented social networking site and is available in many different languages. The platform offers personal profiles, groups, discussion forums, event coordination and other common social community features. There are two membership possibilities: basic membership or premium membership. Basic membership is free, but many core functions, like searching for people with specific qualifications or messaging people to whom one is not already connected, can only be accessed by the premium members. The premium membership is fee-based. According to experts, Xing is ideal for freelancers in particular.
LinkedIn is an employment-oriented service that operates via websites and mobile apps. The platform is available in many different languages and is mainly used for professional networking, including employers posting jobs and job seekers posting their CVs. LinkedIn allows members to create profiles and “connections” to each other in an online social network. In 2019, LinkedIn had 630 million registered members in 150 countries. If you have or need many international contacts, LinkedIn therefore may be a good choice, particularly if you work in the IT, finance, automotive, marketing and advertising industries
- Do some research and decide which online networking platform suits you best and which strategies and other platforms other self-employed people in your industry use and which might be suitable for your business.
- Create a profile on XING or LinkedIn or other professional networking platform that suits you. Your profile should be adapted to the conditions of the respective platform, but also clearly reflect what you are looking for and what you offer. Consider that your professional online profile should comply with what people can expect when they meet you in person.
- Familiarize yourself with the different options and tools on the platform, for example how to connect to other people, edit your CV or your cover letter.
- Have a colleague or friend review your profile and get feedback on it.
- Decide whether you want to set up a professional social media account. If yes, choose carefully from the variety of social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.) and set up a profile that is separate from your personal account. Rather than stretching yourself thin over many channels, use only a few but regularly. Inform yourself what would be a suitable social media strategy for your business.
- Link your professional networking profile with your professional social media presence.
- Finally, combine your online and offline networks. For example, send contact requests to people you have met at an event.