Conference Strategies 3: Networking
Updated: Feb 25
Article first published December 2018 for PRS Foundation, Keychange project.
Part of the point of going to a music conference is Networking.
Yes, I know, it’s a horrible truth but there it is. Networking has a bad reputation. A bit less scary than public speaking, a bit more annoying than finding you left the house without charging your phone past 20%.
Depending on how much of it you’ve done and where and with whom, this word can conjure up images of people aggressively swapping business cards with dozens of other people in a frenzy of telling tales to make themselves seem connected, influential or important. In other words, awfulness.
Networking doesn’t need to be a card exchange competition, it doesn’t need to be about talking to as many people about your accomplishments as you can in a given time-frame. It doesn’t need to be awful at all.
I’ve been networking to build my coaching business for 15 years and supported many clients in that time in building their creative careers the same way. I’ve networked at conferences, business breakfasts and industry gatherings big and small. After spending a year or so really rather hating it, but doing it anyway – I eventually worked out how to make it work for me. And now I’m quite fond of it. As I entirely built my practice on regular networking for the first 7 years, pretty much everything I have ever achieved in my business can be traced back to a connection made at a networking event.
So – what did I do to make it work? My realisations came in 2 parts. First part first.
Firstly I realised that if I knew who I was looking for and what I wanted to get out of being there before I showed up, it helped me to feel less like a rudderless ship on the ocean, being pushed wherever the wind or current wanted to take me. If I knew I was out to find new clients as opposed to finding new opportunities to speak, I could focus my attention on telling people those things about me which maximised my chances of getting what I wanted. I knew what to ask for.
I also made sure I had words ready, to describe what I do, that would let people know in a sentence, maximum two, what I did and who I did it for, so that if we weren’t a match we could move on from our chat, easily and with good feelings on both sides.
I’m a coach so an example of what I say isn’t that helpful to you. Derek Sivers talks some truth about it though.
“People will ask what you do. Don’t give a boring answer. If you say “I’m a bassist”, then they’ll say “oh”, followed by awkward silence and an excuse about why they need to walk away now.
Before the conference, come up with one interesting sentence that says what you do — including a curious bit that will make them ask a follow-up question. For example: “Bassist of the Crunchy Frogs — the worst punk bluegrass band ever. We’re headlining the showcase tonight. Our singer is a pirate.” See how that would lead to questions? Anyone who hears that will ask you why you are the worst, or why your singer is a pirate. You’re helping them engage in a conversation! Also, by quickly mentioning an accolade, you’re showing them you’re worth knowing.”
If people were engaged with what I said I did in that short introduction, or had ideas when I told them what or who I was looking for, it meant that I was headed in the right direction. Any connections I made under those circumstances would be useful. If I had nothing prepared to say and could only speak in general terms about what I did or vague terms about what I had achieved or who I worked with, I would make equally hit or miss connections. So that realisation about being specific and ready with my answers in advance helped a lot.
What do you do? Who are you looking to connect with? Can you answer those two questions in 2 clear and interesting sentences? If not, that’s your task before you next networking opportunity.
It also helped that I made sure I did the follow up come what may when I did make good connections. It was at this point I began to realise that, say, two great interested connections who got me and what I was talking about (or even one of those) was far far more valuable than ten or twenty business cards in my pocket for people I knew perfectly well I was never going to get in touch with because we weren’t any kind of fit with me. Even if in theory professionally we should be a good fit. If they were not my type of person (and that means different things to different people of course but we all know it when we feel it*) there was no way I wanted them as a connection and I would allow myself not to follow them up. No guilt.
*Incidentally if you actually don’t know when someone isn’t your type, bear with me, I’ve got a handy technique coming right up.
The second thing that revolutionised how I approached networking was when I began working with intuition as a business tool as well as a creative one with my clients and in my own practice.
The moment when I decided to check in with my intuition just before stepping through the door of a huge launch event for a monthly networking evening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, was a revolutionary one. I asked my intuition how many great connections I could expect to make and it said 2, which was handy because I had already decided I wanted to find connections for two new clients that evening.
The event itself was heaving with people. I’m not very fond of large crowds even party style ones. Nor do I drink much. So networking events of that kind are not really a fun time for me. (Networking lunches in swanky hotels, now that’s a totally different story!) Also the idea of having to stay at the event til the very end to feel like I’d done my duty was not appealing.
Anyway, once I had a drink I had no idea what to do next as I was alone. I didn’t really want to approach people, I wasn’t in that much of an extroverted mood that evening. So I checked in with my intuition again. Stand in the middle of the room it said and let people come to you. So that’s what I did. I had picked up a couple of the ICA’s promo brochures on my way in so I perused those, but kept my body language open and kept making interested eye contact with the crowd. In the middle of the room. Within half an hour two people had introduced themselves, been delighted to discover I was a coach specifically for creative industries folk, given me their contact details and enthusiastically asked me to get in touch with them (and both became clients within the following couple of weeks). Two people, potential clients just as I wanted, in half an hour. Intuition said it would be two. Two I had had. So I went home. Probably 45 minutes after I arrived. The event was going on for a couple of hours more. I still remember walking across a nearly empty Trafalgar Square at 9pm or so on a warm summer night thinking, with relief, that was so easy! And yet I know I have done everything I needed to do. It’s cool for me to go home. I’m all done here.
After that I refined the process and tried things out. Checking in with my intuition on how many good connections I might expect to make developed into also using my intuition to feel who in a room were actually “my people”.
Skill building exercise: I encourage my clients to develop this skill by sitting in cafes or places where folks gather or pass by and just feel the energy of people passing. It’d not about looking at their clothes or mannerisms but feeling their energy. It’s not about seeing who’s your usual type it’s an exercise in connecting to your intuition.
At this point when I go networking (when it’s not also a social industry occasion where I am connecting with friends) I am very happy to walk in, identify my people, make good connections with those 2 or 3 in a trust building way (ensuring I do good listening, see how I can be of use to them, make a commitment to be in contact with a date) and then I leave. No hanging around.
This removes a lot of the existential pain of networking occasion. It means that rather than feeling it’s all a shot in the dark, there is a sense of having some inner wisdom as guidance. In this way I have helped clients establish themselves in new cities, new countries or in new creative industries when they’ve diversified in far less time than they feared it would take.
Do I Need to Attend this Event?
I even use my intuition to decide whether I need to go to an event at all. I had a client who utilised the same strategy and decided against going to an event because it didn’t feel right when she felt into it. She did, however, get very clear about what she would have wanted to get out of attending it and within two days of not going to the event, the very connection she wanted was introduced to her by someone she had met elsewhere.
In a decade of using intuition as a business development tool as well as a creative one I have yet to experience a situation where I or a client followed an intuition that said, don’t go or do go (even if it required a Herculean effort) and it didn’t work out to our advantage. Like the time I moved heaven and earth to get to a Women in Music conference an entire ocean and continent away because it felt right and met just exactly who I needed to meet on day one. Or like the music industry freelancer who asked me whether her intuition to go Paris (from Helsinki) with a musician client for an event was ridiculous. We checked in with her intuition in detail and decided it wasn’t. The event was OK, but when she decided to follow another intuition to go out for some air, taking her client, and bumped into a well known musician in the street who they had a mutual connection with, and that ended up with everyone in a studio in Paris doing a joint recording, yeah – intuition as a business tool… It works.
Tl;dr - If Networking feels like an overwhelming activity crunch it down into basics and get clear. Ask your intuition, is this even an event you need to go to? If not, stay home. If yes, are you 1) clear on what to say about yourself in a sentence? And Can you say specifically who you are asking for introductions to and what for in a sentence? 2) Do you know exactly what you are going to the event to achieve (so you can relax and enjoy or simply leave once you’ve achieved it)? 3) Are you on top of your – are you a me kind of person - intuitive game? If yes, networking will probably go pretty smoothly for you. If not, do your homework on those three aspects (but sharpening your intuitive skills is the best use of your time if you only have time for one) and your networking experience will undoubtedly improve.