By Paul Marchesseault, Abshier House
  • Small-business networking involves contacting people, talking with people, staying in touch with people, getting involved with groups of people in person, or via e-mail, Internet forums, or social media.

  • It’s definitely people-stuff. Whether you are shy, introverted, a geek or a nerd, or an extrovert ready to take on a challenging last-minute speaking engagement at the drop of an invitation, there are ways to network for everybody. If you run a small business, there are avenues and pathways to networking for you, and networking is essential to success. This tips can help:

  • Build relationships. Among acquaintances, within communities, among business associates, and within a group of potential customers, get to know as many people as you can. Opening yourself up to those relationships and getting other individuals and groups to open up to you is a skill you must learn in order to be successful in a small business.

  • Seek out familiar faces to start networking. Friends, family, and acquaintances can be your practice runs. Even if you just carry on a conversation, it’s good practice at small talk, a skill that is vital in networking.

  • You can end the conversation by reminding them you have a business. Make sure you have two business cards with you. Tell them one is for them and ask them to give the other to anyone who might need your products or services. Then surprise them by asking if there is anything you can do for them. Networking is a two-way street.

  • Practice the skill of small talk. It is a skill. You can learn the skill. Talk to everybody you encounter in a natural setting.

  • You don’t have to stop people on the street. You naturally encounter cashiers, wait staff, neighbors, parking attendants, and co-workers. Practice small talk. Start with the weather (good or bad) and expand the conversation. Learning about lots of miscellaneous subjects gives you more to choose from in making small talk.

  • Read up on current events and interesting trivia. It gives you opportunities to insert some new information into a conversation. Saying, “Just the other day I read something that astounded me so much that I’ve just got to share it with somebody,” immediately draws a person into your conversation and makes them a central part of it.

  • Music, sports, television, movies, and pets can be common areas of interest. Write down notes on things that seem interesting. Research some of them on the Internet. The wider the range of your interests, the more you can talk about.

  • Just don’t get so proud of your new knowledge that you become overbearing in your conversations. Insert ideas into the conversation, but let others react with their opinions. Test out a few topics first to see how the process works, and don’t interrupt someone else’s story with your own.

  • Practice conversation in a mirror, the way actors might. Pick a common topic to see what you have to say about it. If it’s awkward because you are unsure, research the topic a bit more. Keep practicing and rehearsing until you feel more comfortable with talking in this manner. Yes, this takes work, but it’s a crucial skill.

    Now that you’ve explored basic skills, look at how to turn them into the skills of networking.

  • Attend all kinds of community events. Invite somebody and go to the theater or a sporting event. Between acts, halves, quarters, or periods, talk to others. Introduce your companion and include them in the conversation. Have fun at it. Don’t forget to hand a business card and ask for one in return. Tell them to give your card to someone who might need the information.

  • Join organizations and clubs that operate in your business’s geographical area. If you operate in a much wider area, consider joining professional organizations that relate to your business and that operate widely also. Talk to people. Watch for others who are respected within the organizations and introduce yourself. Offer to work on committees. Give back to those who are helping you with information and their friendship.

  • Be a good listener, particularly in professional organization meetings and conferences. Write down useful comments. People will mention things like school plays their children are in. If you meet them again soon after, ask about how the play went. Listen and encourage their reaction.

    Somebody else might mention a new process or procedure that might be helpful in your business. Make note. You can sometimes gain as much by listening as by talking.

  • Follow up on contacts that occur in any of your networking activities. Build a network of your contacts by e-mail, a brief friendly phone call, an invitation for early morning coffee before work, or for lunch. You’ll get some rejections, but always make your reactions friendly.

    Little by little, you will build a network of people who can help you expand your business and who you help in any way you can. That builds lasting business friendships.