7 sure-fire ways to make the most of that next 'In real life' networking event in 2023
Updated: Jan 5
Networking, in person, has always been a key part of my freelance business. I love meeting people, I am inspired when I meet them in person and inspired when I go to events and hear key speakers. Indeed, it was at an IRL (in real life) event, Freelance Heroes Day, that I decided I would build what has become Freelance Feels.
After that event, the next one I went to was National Freelancers Day (NFD), run by IPSE. I vowed then that I would work with them and speak at NFD (I did last year and am this year). I've added a link at the end of this piece for anyone who wants more info and to sign up.
It’s safe to say that I thrive at in-person events. I enjoy introducing myself, showing who I am in the flesh, and speaking to people about what I do. As a coach, I offer so-called ‘discovery calls’ so people can connect with me and see if we’re a good fit. Well, being at an event is, for me, the shortcut to that connection!
So, hearing that events are starting again, I’ve been dipping my toes in the IRL networking water. Only, things have changed. We’re all out of practice!
I’ve found myself walking a tightrope between gentle introduction and full-on selling.
I’ve been ‘sold’ to, and found it quite intrusive. I’ve also remembered the feeling of walking into a room full of strangers, alone, and thinking ‘talk to someone!”
IRL networking isn’t easy for many of us, and the confidence that some have isn’t universal.
Recently, I’ve dipped my toe in the water at two IRL events, as well as arranging one on one meetings with contacts. I’ve really enjoyed it, and seen my connections and confidence grow. The first event I went to was industry-specific, a spring party hosted by Women in Journalism. I saw a former podcast guest I’d never met in person, and then bumped into someone I worked with 20 years ago, and the wife of a friend who works at channel 4! Safe to say it ended up chatty, boozy and fun. I gave out all the business cards I’d taken with me and spoke to several journalists who were interested in speaking to me as a coach/expert.
I say boozy, but I by no means advocate that IRL networking needs to be alcohol orientated.
In fact, here’s Tip Number 1: Watch the booze. I was over-excited at that party, and let the Prosecco flow. However, I know that without it I might have networked more, worked the room, or at least had less of a hangover the next day for an online meeting!
Having a drink in your hand is also an obstruction of sorts. You want to be able to hand out cards, shake hands if you want to, and so on. Holding a drink stops you from being able to do those things so easily.
The next event I went to was a morning meet up in my local pub, Business Buzz. And here’s Tip Number 2: Consider taking a business wingman/woman. Going with a friend makes that ‘entrance’ moment so much easier. You can sing each other’s praises to the different people you meet, and you’ve got someone to chat to if things aren’t so lively.
Now, I say consider, because not everyone agrees! A caveat with this is that you risk standing together in the corner chatting instead of networking! As Jem Collins, founder of Journo Resources (who I also met at the WIJ party) explains: “My biggest tip for networking events is to go by yourself - if you can face it, put aside the temptation to bring a friend, as the chances are you’ll end up spending most of the evening talking to them rather than no people. Going by yourself forces you to speak to other, new people - if you’re worried about the prospect of turning up to a room full of people go early and then it’ll be easier to find someone to chat to.”
Business Buzz has a clever 3,2,1 rule. Speak to three new people. Try and arrange two follow-ups one on one meetings and, next time, bring one new person. It’s a really great way to navigate the morning, as it means you can excuse yourself to go and meet another new person, and following up isn’t so awkward, either.
One of the people I met at the Business Buzz was Caroline O’Connor at JackFM. She shared her top tips for IRL networking with me. So here are tips number 3, 4 and 5, all from Caroline.
3: The benefit of networking is not to sell to 1 person in the room, but to open up opportunities in their wider network. So have the objective to speak to new people with the sole purpose of working out if you would benefit from a follow up 121 with them.
4: If you’re new to networking pick a group and be consistent. If it’s monthly, go monthly, if it’s weekly go weekly. Treat is with the importance of a new business appointment. If you’re not there you’ll miss out on an opportunity.
5: Build a reputation for being generous with your introductions with no need of reward. The introductions will come back to you naturally. Or when specifically asked for perhaps at a later date.
I love no5 so much! We often go to events thinking about sealing the deal with new clients. But it's about building networks, confidence and connections, not funnels!
Jem also shared a nugget of advice which I found really useful and brings us to Tip No 6: Managing your expectations of the event is key. She says:“Be realistic about how many people you want to talk to - sure, there might be 150 people there, but over the course of a night, meeting even five people is a result. It’s not about the number, but actually having a proper conversation with someone."
"Keeping this in mind helps to keep you present in the conversation too - you don’t make any meaningful connections if you’re flitting around all night and looking over your conversation partner’s shoulder for someone new.”
Tip 7: Be prepared. This is one of mine, and it's about everything from your elevator pitch and business cards to your shoes. Making sure you know the way to the event, when you might need to leave to comfortably catch a train. Is there an 'introduce yourself' moment (there is with Business Buzz), or, for example, a speaker you need to be there in time for.
Make sure you're comfortable (heels are a total no for me now!) and that you have a bag that you can carry without it getting in the way. Above all, remember everyone else is also nervous!
If you’re in need of a confidence boost for networking or any other freelance challenges, get in touch to talk about how coaching can help.