In her book The Intentional Networker, Patti DeNucci lays down the basic (and some more advanced) ground rules for professional business networking. Two of her points are worth exploring in more detail here: (1) what to wear, and (2) how to network—especially when it comes to referrals and asking others for their time.
WHAT NOT TO WEAR TO A NETWORKING EVENT
When DeNucci gives the example of a woman who wants to make $75K but dresses in sweats and has perennially dirty, unkempt hair, chances are that on some days you recognize yourself in that woman. Maybe you work from home (and let’s be honest, possibly in your PJs); maybe you’re a firm believer that it’s the person, not their appearance, who should be judged. Call it quality over quantity of designer suits, jewelry, or briefcases. I, too, wish the world worked this way … but it doesn’t. Not when it comes to business.
NETWORKING IS LIKE DATING
The last date I went on, I knew very little about the guy in advance. I’d asked him out after only a brief encounter (on the volleyball court no less). Given the casual circumstances under which we’d met, I decided to err on the side of caution, picking a nice but fun dress and funky statement earrings for our dinner. Whether he showed up in jeans or a suit, I felt I’d be okay. I arrived at our meeting place earlier than he, but I spotted him immediately as he approached my table. He wore fitted pants, a button-down shirt and a blazer, with an exquisite leather belt and Italian shoes. VERY put-together, and quite frankly, he kind of took my breath away. He dressed better than he ‘had’ to (given that he’s also just naturally good-looking), but the extra effort spoke volumes about his character, ambitions, and how seriously he took the date.
Right away, I was reassured that I was in the presence of a calm, confident, well-to-do gentleman. That’s exactly the type of person I like to date, and exactly the type of person I want to do business with!
WHAT SHOULD I WEAR TO A NETWORKING EVENT?
If there’s a networking event on my calendar that I’ve planned for well in advance, I always take pains to look professional going in. A dress, or dress pants and a blouse, are standard for me, as well as either elegant or funky jewelry (depending on the mood of the event). I’ve learned that the accessories are what pull a whole outfit together, so don’t skimp on the shoes or bag either. (I just placed a bag order with this great Italian company on Etsy—check them out!) It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.
ALWAYS BE PREPARED TO NETWORK
Then there are the days I leave my house in my jeans or even yoga pants because I’m ‘just walking to the grocery store.’ Yet, it never fails that as soon as I walk through the doors of HEB, I see someone I know or end up in line behind someone who wants to make conversation. And those are networking opportunities, too! Maybe I’m in a bad mood, or not wearing make-up, but as the face of my business, I always have to be ‘on’ and ready to go. It’s a challenge—one that can excite you, or leave you perpetually anxious. Work on the excitement by always having a non-salesy elevator pitch in your back pocket, and a desire to make a genuine connection.
MAKING & RECEIVING REFERRALS: GIVE TO GET
Sometimes other people in your network facilitate the connection. They introduce you to their friend or a potential contact, and wait for the sparks to fly. You’ll connect authentically or you won’t, but three words that instantly turn me off are “pick your brain.” Anyone who asks me to make time for them in my busy schedule with no inkling of a return on the investment isn’t going to get much from me. Business is transactional (a give-to-get) before anything else.
I recently found myself in that exact scenario, but wearing the other shoe. There was a filmmaker I wanted to meet, whose work I greatly admired but who had no real incentive to make time for me. So I made it worth his time. I wrote my thesis on his complete filmography, had it translated into Czech (his native language), and sent it to him with a request for a meeting. I offered to come to him in Prague, arrange for an interpreter, and have my questions prepared. Clearly, I’d done my homework, and was conscious of making my request as easy for him to fulfill as possible. The value to him was also already clear: he got more exposure in America through the publication of my thesis in a popular film journal here. I’d demonstrated my sincere interest in who he is as a person and artist; I was not just another ‘fangirl.’ I gave to get.
Dress to impress (because it does impress). Be on your toes. Do your homework. Offer value to get value. Good luck.