Networking for fun and profit
In particular, the usefulness of the internet as a source of work and its ability to connect freelancers with client companies who might be thousands of miles away has helped to shape the conception of the modern freelancer; an atypically productive hermit with broadband.
However, the smart freelancer knows that splendid isolation carries disadvantages. The interchange of ideas with other professionals in the same sphere is vital in preventing your own skills and techniques from stagnating. Customer and/or end-user focus can be another casualty; the ability to put yourself in your client’s place and assume their mindset requires customer contact – though not exclusively your own customers – to keep it fresh. To avoid slipping out of touch, it’s crucial to network.
Professional networking presents two challenges for freelancers. Finding suitable opportunities, where you are likely to be able to make the kind of connections that can add value to you, and making the most of those opportunities once identified.
The first of these yields to a little ingenuity. Training courses, seminars, trade shows and conferences can all provide a rich pool of potential networkees. Many internet networking resources also organise regional or national get-togethers; if there’s a particular online community that you use to keep in virtual touch, explore it to find out if they have a presence IRL. And don’t be limited to thinking that the only valuable networking opportunities will arise in your own area. I was alerted to one local professional’s breakfast club meeting in my area through chatting with my chiropractor.
Once face-to-face with potentially valuable networking resources, making the most of the opportunity is more involved. There are a lot of things to remember and, like the related skill of public speaking, many of them don’t come naturally to the majority of us. Briefly, though, your main priorities should be:
- Preparation. Have a plan for the sort of contacts you hope to make, not forgetting to give some thought to the value that you expect to bring to the network.
- Be a good listener first, a talker second. Don’t make the mistake of trying to sell yourself; this shouldn’t be a pitch, and people will rapidly lose interest if you continually attempt to turn the conversation your way.
- Circulate, but don’t flit. You’ll get maximum benefit from a networking opportunity by making the most connections, so don’t wall-hang and wait to be spoken to, or try to monopolise the attention of just one or two others. At the same time, however, make sure that whoever you’re speaking to has your full attention; there’s little more off-putting than scanning the room for your next target while someone is trying to have a conversation.
- Finally, follow up your connections. They’re only contacts if you keep in touch; a network with no traffic flowing around it is failing of its purpose.
And above all, try to have fun! Remember that you’re under no pressure; this is a social situation as much as it is a business event. Achieving successful networking can be one of the biggest benefits of the freelancer’s work situation, so be sure you’re making the best of your opportunities.