By Gayle Sovinee
Special to the Citizen-Times
Networking is an effective tool in building visibility about you and your business, and gaining access to potential customers, colleagues and referrals. Networking situations can be intimidating, especially when you’re just starting out; it’s important to remember there’s nothing negative or manipulative about it. Networking is making connections with people who can help you or whom you can help; it doesn’t have to be about making a sale. Think of it as a means of building relationships.
Learn about networking groups and associations in your area, and join the ones that you think will provide mutual support. Many of these include small business owners like you, seeking to make business connections. You should also look for opportunities to talk to people you don’t know at nonbusiness events like social events, church events, on flights, at PTA meetings, etc.
A simple hello may be all you need to initiate a conversation. A way to jumpstart a conversation is by using an icebreaker, something used to ease any initial tension, restraint or awkwardness. For example, ask, “What do you do?” Learn to ask this with comfort, sincerity and interest, and pause long enough for the reply.
You should prepare a good 30-second “elevator speech,” a concise description of who you are and what you do, to quickly sell yourself and your product or service in order to make a good first impression, and to encourage people to want to know more.
Remember that for your words to be effective, you need to believe in what you’re saying. Try creating different speeches for different audiences, and practice these. The more you practice, the more natural it will become.
You should also learn to listen to what your new connection is saying, listen to what they have to say about their business, and ask relevant followup questions. Showing an interest will motivate people to stay in contact — a win/win connection for both of you.
Finally, networking events are about moving around and connecting with as many people as you can. At an appropriate point in the conversation, exchange business cards, brochures, and other promotional materials. Follow up with a phone call or email, even if for a minor exchange of information, and if you say you’re going to do something, do it!
Gayle Sovinee is a SCORE volunteer counselor. To learn more about networking and other critical small business skills, contact www.ashevillescore. org. Asheville SCORE is a nonprofit organization providing free, confidential business mentoring and training workshops to small business owners.