I’ll tell you a secret – the pandemic may not be over, but you can still be networking. Even when networking is primarily done in a virtual way, the substance of it has not changed; only the platform.
So what does that mean when it comes to networking?
- It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t go to one networking event and expect to get business. We may have gotten WAY more efficient through our use of Zoom and Teams, but that doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily cutting to the chase through our use of virtual technology and throwing out the need to build relationships – we still need to do that. You may be attending networking events online or even regularly connecting with clients who are going to refer you to others for new business, but it may happen just as slowly as before. So continue to be patient and employ the same relationship-building techniques as you would if you were meeting in person.
- Your elevator speech isn’t about YOU. We’ve all heard so much about having our 30-second elevator speeches “at the ready.” And this is true. But for lawyers (and for other professionals!), these thirty-second commercials should explain how you solve the problems of your potential clients. It tells people a) who your clients/potential clients are, b) what you can do to help them, and c) why that person should keep talking to you. We’ve gotten MUCH more casual in the pandemic, which, in some ways, is great, and in others, has made us a bit…lazy…about our brands. Yes, I said the dreaded “b” word. Your “elevator speech” is part of your brand. Consider what has changed in the last year about the ways in which you help your clients. My guess is that you’ve become even MORE of a trusted partner and counsel. How else can you emphasize the problems that you solve for your clients when you describe what you do? Is it time to refresh that description? You may not be meeting as many people in person, but what do you say when you meet someone online?
- Networking is about the pre-, during, and post-event engagement. Don’t think that all you have to do is show up at an event to be successful. Have you researched the attendees beforehand and identified your goals for attending an event? Have you connected to potential contacts and joined in on any social conversations so that you have warm connections instead of cold ones when you arrive? Have you set up meetings in advance instead of relying on blind luck? After the event, have you scheduled follow-up opportunities, such as virtual meetings or calls? Have you connected to the people that you’ve met on social media, such as sending them a LinkedIn request that is specific to the conversation you had at the networking event? This all worked really well for in-person events, but it can ALSO work well for virtual ones – anything works better when you plan in advance, and then work your plan. And while there is a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the pandemic, virtual events aren’t going away any time soon, so you’ll be very much ahead of the game when it comes to your competition if you work to make the most out of them instead of crossing your fingers when you attend.
- Social media can supercharge your efforts. Social media will always supercharge your attendance of an event. While this is more useful for larger events, such as virtual conferences, use it before an event to conduct research on fellow attendees that you’d like to connect with and join in on any conversations that may be happening around the event hashtag, if there is one. Connect with event organizers and speakers before or during the event to leverage current and future opportunities. Connect with fellow attendees that you’ve chatted with after the event, referencing your conversations in your invitation, to keep the conversations going. It can be hard to connect virtually with new people, especially at larger events, but this is a way to make the world smaller.
- Act like the host. Connect with the organizers or hosts of any networking event and offer to be helpful. The organizers will usually know everyone attending an event, and you can use them as a resource to help connect you with the right people – ask them who else is attending that you should be connected with. Get to know the organizers and their needs, and depending on the event, you may be well-placed to become a speaker or resource for future events. Ask if you can help to promote the event with your contacts, or if there is another way to be supportive. Don’t be false with your agenda though – work at being genuinely helpful in your efforts as an extra “host” and the organizers of the event will appreciate your assistance! (As a part-time events organizer myself, I can tell you that we can spot the difference).
- You have two ears and one mouth. Use wisely. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” This is essential when networking, because listening allows you to better identify your networking companions’ problems, issues, and needs so that you can better assist them. It’s also been found that when someone spends time listening to someone, rather than telling them about themselves, the speaker finds the listener to be highly intelligent. Show off your intelligence by doing more listening than sharing. This used to be more difficult when virtual networking was done over the phone and you had fewer visual cues, but with the help of Zoom and Teams, you get more of the benefit of people’s facial expressions and body cues. Be an active listener and engage in the conversation in a way that lets the speaker know you care about what they are saying.
- Learn about cultural differences before you go somewhere new. I usually would use this in reference to traveling to a new place (and that still matters!), but honestly, cultural differences can vary even industry to industry – we know that the legal industry, for instance, has our own language and customs. I will always encourage you to get outside your comfort zone and attend the events where your clients and potential clients are, and there may be a cultural difference there – what is their “language,” what are their “customs”? Sometimes, the only way to learn about these is by observation, but you can sometimes do some pre-attendance research as well. Things may also differ for certain companies in a virtual environment than in person – some groups will insist that everyone keep their cameras on, and everyone muted, while others will have everyone off mute. You may want to inquire beforehand whether you need to show up camera ready to an event or not!
We may be currently living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but the ability to connect and network with each other virtually isn’t going away any time soon. As a result, we’ll need to settle in and adapt our networking skills to these platforms for good.