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Traditional networking is a divisive thing, tending to split people firmly into one of two camps. You’re either a social swan, who glides around events with easy grace and charm, sweeping up cards and canapes with effortless ease; or, you hate them, with a true, pure, quietly simmering passion.
It’s just everything about them. That awkward pause when someone tangibly tries to read the name on your lanyard, or very obviously still doesn’t understand what it is, exactly, you do, or fails, for the third time, to hear your name correctly. But whilst some people swear by face-to-face interactions for securing business and growing networks, what place does networking hold for the modern freelancer?
Some freelancers adore face-to-face networking; regardless of age or stage of career, they’re in their element when rubbing the proverbial shoulder with industry colleagues. Freelancing can be lonely if you’re working on your own, so events – be it an industry conference, a launch evening or even a Christmas party – can be a fantastic opportunity to engage with people who are in similar boats.
Others, however, burst into a cold sweat at the mere thought of it. Real-life networking can be brilliant; equally, it can be intimidating. So-called schmoozing and selling yourself is part-and-parcel of professional life; that said, they can border on the cringeworthy.
Of course, it’s pretty prescriptive to assume that a one-size-fits-all when it comes to the best possible means of developing contact books or opening yourself up to new opportunities. There are all sorts of reasons for partaking in networking, whether it’s an event that’s been specifically created to nurture a sense of industry community or it’s simply mingling with total strangers who have potential to be useful for that side-hustle you’ve been thinking about.
But let’s be real: in the modern day and age, where work is easiest shared via an Instagram feed or a WeTransfer folder of PDFs, does making your way through a face-to-face event really result in anything more meaningful than a unique desire to never attend one ever again? Will you ever be able to leave a networking event without declaring you’ll email someone, or look them up on Instagram? And are you missing out entirely if you can’t quite stomach the thought of them?
Absolutely not, says Sara Tasker, founder of Me & Orla, Instagram whiz, podcast host, author and all-round digital genius. “They’re no use to me as for one thing, I’m an introvert. And for another, my work is best understood by viewing it. People rarely get what they need to hire me from a networking event conversation – all my leads come from people consuming my work online.”
Creative consultant Holly Landis agrees that face-to-face networking doesn’t necessarily hold the same appeal it did in pre-online times. “I’m painfully shy when it comes to meeting people in real life,” she explains. “I honestly think that traditional networking hinders rather than helps my business. Online networking is much more effective for me and also ties in with my work, too.”
Of course, it’s not just nerves that can influence the relevancy of networking. “My main problem with traditional networking is I never seem to meet people who are actually useful for my business,” explains Joshua Wood, founder of app Bloc. “There’s so much wasted time spent talking to people who are lovely but who aren’t actually going to help grow my brand…”
He adds: “I just find most networking events aren’t specific enough and are done by industry rather than a specific job title. Nowadays with the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn, it’s so much better to spend time and effort networking with people that might actually be able to help with something in the future”.
And let’s face it: we’re all guilty of heading home from a networking event and heading straight online to play Sherlock Holmes via LinkedIn* with the stack of cards we’ve acquired. (*Or Instagram, depending on how deep your digging goes.)
In short, the importance of networking is an experience that varies from person-to-person. “I find networking events invaluable,” says Vicky Hicks, who has met a variety of mentors through face-to-face networking. “It’s great to gain an insight and learn from the challenges other leaders in my industry are facing – and share my own, too. I’ve established many relationships through these types of events and we’ve gone on to help other overcome similar obstacles.”
Business coach Anna Parker-Naples agrees: “Because of social media, much of our communication is through a filtered distance, so there’s something special about meeting someone in person. You can build rapport and form professional relationships in a way that is impossible to replicate online”. And yes, she used to dread networking events, too – but has learnt how to love them. “They used to make me feel anxious,” she remembers. “But I’ve seen major returns for my business as a result of showing up where people of influence were going to be.”
The take-away? Both traditional and digital networking have their merits. (“Though I don’t need to do my hair for online networking…” adds Sara.) If the thought of traditional networking makes you feel uncomfortable or exasperated, online can prove just as valuable – and you won’t even need to leave the comfort of your home.
Three ways to max your networking prowess, IRL or online
1. Test your limits by finding smaller in-person events where you can begin working on developing a network. “Get really selective about what networking events you go to,” suggests Sue Tappenden, founder of Headspace For Change. “If you’re shy or anxious, find an event that is small and speak to the organiser beforehand so they know it’s your first event. That way, you can seek them out when you arrive. The host should be happy to introduce you to people – if they aren’t, leave and don’t go again!”
2. If online is the way you want to go, work out how, exactly, you’re going to make it work for you. “Have a plan in terms of how many people you want to connect with, whether via social media or email, and reach out to a certain amount of people each day,” recommends author and NLP coach Rebecca Lockwood. “Just be yourself, be honest with people and tell them you are connecting and collaborating with people and would love to connect on a coffee chat whether that is virtual or in person.”
3. If the thought of awkward silence – whether face-to-face or on a social platform – throws you, be prepared. “Think of 10 questions that you can ask, which will give you confidence that you’ve got it covered if the conversation dries up,” advises Holly Matthews, founder of The Happy Me Project. “Be the listener and remember the best way to network is to make the other person feel good about their conversation with you, plus by asking a question listening you let yourself have time from talking.” Simon Paine, CEO of Pop-Up Business School, agrees. “Questions are the key to getting the other person talking and learning more. You never know what you might find out.”
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