The ultimate guide to networking: 5 essential skills to cultivate

Are you interested in cultivating a network? It can be a daunting task, but here are the essentials you’ll need to get started - both online and offline.

Our experts

We are a team of writers, experimenters and researchers providing you with the best advice with zero bias or partiality.
Written and reviewed by:

There’s the old age saying: your network is your net worth. No entrepreneur should be an island – the most successful ones liaise with their peers to share knowledge, connections and resources. In fact, a supportive network is one of the key ingredients to starting a successful business.

When you have friends in your industry, you can learn from each other, grow, collaborate and generally find better ways to connect with overlapping audiences.

Another phrase to get familiar with is one by Jim Rohn, who states: we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with, too.

In order to grow and become the best small business owner you can be, you have to put yourself in the right rooms regularly, keep your ear to the pulse of things that are going on – and be around people who have a positive success mindset and energy that you should hope gets imprinted on you, allowing you to always keep your own drive and motivation levels high.

The 5 most important networking skills for UK entrepreneurs

Networking may look like it comes so naturally to certain people, but it can be turned into something of a formula for those wanting to improve at it. That’s because, ultimately, we’re all human beings with the same primary wants, goals and needs. Focus on this, and networking can begin to feel more logical.

It gets even simpler when you narrow it down to two principal forms of connecting and learning how to communicate them well: these are showcasing your hard skills, and enacting your soft skills. Here, we’ll dive deeper into how you can obtain excellent networking connections by leaning into these elements.

1. Develop your social and communication skills

It all starts with communication skills.

You’re going to have to know how to connect with others using soft skills that hopefully you’ve already developed over the course of your life so far. This isn’t simply about perfecting a strong handshake. It’s about knowing when to enter and exit conversations gracefully, and how to properly balance a conversation between you and the participant(s).

As well as communicating verbally, certain other social skills come into play. These include knowing when to approach someone, gauging who may be most receptive to your company, and persuading others on how best you could potentially collaborate in future.

2. Master your elevator pitch

When it comes to aiming to be the utmost formal and professional you can be, you should almost always begin with a great elevator pitch.

A good one typically summarises who you are, what you do, and the impact you can bring, all within a few short, concise sentences. This allows the other person or people you’re speaking to a chance to understand what value the conversation (and you) might be able to add to their lives, their outlooks, or their own businesses.

While that may not sound very humanitarian (as in, everyone should just appreciate you for who you are, right?), in professional settings, it all comes down to value and reciprocity. You only ever have a very limited time to make a first impression, so use this brief window to effectively convey the expertise and knowledge you can offer, as well as a solid overview of the type of person you are.

You can exhibit this by throwing in a few facts about your personality to vary the conversation a little, especially if they make sense combined with your business or the industry you’re in – the more relevant the better.

3. Understand the value of networking events

Networking events are crucial to meeting new, business-minded people that you could potentially work and collaborate with.

While there is always the miracle-laden chance that you might just bump into your perfect business partner at the grocery store, leaving it to serendipity would make poor business sense.

As an entrepreneur, we are sure you’d rather be proactive and take things into your own hands instead of waiting for fate, right?

Networking events are excellent opportunities, because there is no ambiguity about why everyone else is there. You all start from the shared common ground that you all actually want to meet new people who are similar in goals and values as you.

It removes one of the first barriers when it comes to conversation with people in general: that anxiety-inducing, intrusive thought most people have that makes us wonder:

“Is this person really interested in what I’m saying right now? Am I bothering them? Is this the right moment for this?”

With a networking event, the time and place are always perfect. They certainly beat shrieking your goals and objectives from the top of your lungs, or waving your business card around in an airport lounge, for example.

4. Identify and reach out to key contacts

Have you ever walked into a room and just instantly known who the top dogs are?

Whether it’s a vibe, other people’s body language, somebody’s tone of voice, how they are commanding a room – or whether you’ve just heard about them through the grapevine – you can usually get a good grasp on who is an important player or not.

However, be careful not to be tricked by first impressions – the real ‘top dog’ is not always loud.

I’ve been in networking rooms where this is quite the opposite, in fact. It’s bewildering but fascinating to have spoken to a person in a suit for fifteen minutes assuming they are a higher-up in a company, only for them to point to their boss behind them wearing a band T-shirt and skinny jeans who has a net worth of over £5 million.

With enough practice, you can learn to scope out even the quiet leaders. But, ultimately, in a networking event, you should make a point to try and get to know as many people as you can, regardless of perceived status.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, treat everyone with respect, and know that everyone has a story to tell. Remember above all, that anyone could have that potential stellar connection they can introduce you to.

5. Know how to follow up

If there’s ever a tip I can share with you it’s this: always leave a “to be continued”.

This can be in the form of something tangible you had planned to do together. But, more likely, it will be an idea that you should follow up with your intended person after a few days or so.

If you were smart enough to make notes (mental or otherwise) and remember specifically what it was that connected you to this person on a business level, then reaching out to them about this topic can be much more effective, and more likely to resonate with them, than a general “it was great to meet you” message.

If you don’t follow up on something specific, then you risk adding yet another small talk conversation to someone’s inbox or LinkedIn messages. Most entrepreneurs dread dealing with these, knowing they’re coming from someone with an (as yet unstated) agenda.

When you’re following up, avoid coming across:

  1. As though you’re unsure of yourself, and are hoping the other person will offer something to help you out – this is very unlikely to get results.
  2. As though you know what you want, but show little interest in the other person or what they offer – this could make them feel disposable and unvalued.

Following up with something specific also ties into the theory of reciprocity. If they see that you are making an effort to remember the things that are important to them, they are more likely to do the same for you.

A good example:

“How are you? I was just thinking about that business collaboration we were talking about at the networking event. I think it would really pop if we did X, like you said. In fact, I did a bit of working it out in my business plan, and I think it could help us both reach Y in our businesses. How about we discuss it further next week if you have some time to catch up?”

A few strategies to try:

Thank you cards
Follow-up texts
Follow-up appointments

What should I bring to a networking event?

The most important thing to bring to a networking event is yourself. You can show up with only that and still be valid.

No one is expecting you to have a ten-piece suitcase or full cash flow forecast that you can just whip out on demand. In fact, there are no other requirements at all!

There are however some things you could bring if you wanted to simply look more professional:

What to bring to a networking event:

  • Business cards – to hand out in case anyone wants further information about your business
  • A pen or your phone – in order to take other people’s information and details

It also never hurts to dress nicely and look the part – although again, this is not strictly necessary unless the venue has explicitly stated a dress code.

Networking at in-person events

In-person events make it a lot easier for people to remember you, to gain contact information quickly for follow-up conversations, and to make a great first impression.

As Maya Angelou once said:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

…and of course, an emotional connection like that can be easier to make in person.

However, on the more negative side (depending on your own personal style of communication), you may simply be better at expressing yourself online. 

At an in-person event, you may not be able to get enough one-on-one time as you’d hoped with a person, simply due to the sheer number of other people trying to do the exact same thing. Nevertheless, here are some tips for making good connections at an in-person networking event:

A few strategies to try:

The ‘Reverse Engineer’ technique – Think of your next big project, campaign or launch backwards. What steps need to be taken before the big event, in order? What kind of people (designers, engineers, manufacturers) could you collaborate with to potentially help you bring those ideas to life?

The ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ technique – Everyone knows someone, and apparently, you are only ever six degrees of separation away from your dream mentor or business idol. Be sure to ask around, who may have that crucial fifth degree?

The ‘Pre-Networking' technique – If the list of speakers or prominent individuals is shared ahead of the event, think about reaching out to them in advance. You can drop them a line even before you step into the room, and it could make that in-person introduction so much easier as your name might ring a bell straight away.

Networking online

Networking online may sound easier if you’re daunted by an in-person event. But, online networking can actually be slightly trickier in some aspects.

For instance, you may not have the first idea how to get ‘that’ person’s email, or know how to stand out from the crowd when you do manage to reach out to them. It can be hard to establish a strong, meaningful relationship in an atmosphere designed to focus attendees’ attention on a keynote speech on a small screen, for instance.

There are some positives, however.

Networking online:

  • Is typically cheaper than traditional networking – there’s no need for travel, which is also convenient if you don’t live ‘close to the action.’
  • Is accessible at the click of a button – gone are the days when you had to wait 3-5 business days for an invite letter to arrive at your office, or have to figure out the logistics of attending an event around your own work commitments.
  • Allows you to take advantage of different forms of media – video, presentation, spreadsheet, the opportunities are endless when it comes to ways you could showcase your skills and expertise to a new person.

How to make meaningful connections online: tips for building relationships and staying connected with people

  • Don’t waste their time: Be sure to still use an elevator pitch and state clearly what you want.
  • Work to your strengths (using multimedia): Keeping the spirit of reciprocation in mind, make sure they know you would be an asset to them as much as they would be to you.
  • Share your social media links: This could help to establish credibility (providing your social media business accounts are well managed)
  • Follow up regularly: With the power of the internet you could even set a reminder on your desktop computer or laptop for this kind of networking management.
  • Try humour: everyone loves a bit of humour, and while you’ll want to keep things professional, it can help make your introduction that bit more memorable.

Tips for creating an effective online profile

Here are some handy resources to help you get started creating that stellar effective online profile, which will provide your new network with that stellar first impression of you:

How to find the right networking events for you

The simplest answer to finding network events is to research online. But, there’s more to this than simply plugging a few search queries into Google and finding a tailor-made calendar of perfect opportunities within seconds.

Here are some actionable tips on how to find the right networking events for you:

  1. Identify your goal – Before attending any networking event, have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve when you get there. Knowing your objectives will help you find the right events to attend.
  2. Narrow down your research – While it may begin with a Google search or LinkedIn trawl, you can hone things effectively with a few key approaches. Follow some relevant industry associations, for example – these may give you insights on upcoming events where you can network with people who share similar interests and goals.
  3. Consider smaller gatherings – Large networking events may feel more overwhelming if you’re new to all this, and there’s more risk of your own presence being drowned out. Think about attending relevant smaller gatherings for your industry, instead (Meetup.com is a great place to do this).
  4. Mix and match online and offline events – Don’t feel constrained by any one type of networking event. Not everything needs to be a drinks and canapés evening (though those can be fun, too). Make a shortlist of relevant online events, and the most appropriate in-person events that may be worth attending.

Conclusion

In summary, here are a few final tips for you to pull all of these strategies together:

  • Have an objective in mind before you attend, which will help you stay focused and calmer throughout the process, knowing you have a loose plan to work towards when it comes to meeting people.
  • Be bold and make an effort to push yourself out of your comfort zone
  • Have fun and be genuinely interested when you chat with others
  • Take notes to remember names and conversation topics
  • Make connections offline as well as online

The only step to do now is to get out there and improve your network!

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How can I improve my networking skills?
    To improve your networking you must: develop your social and communication skills, master your elevator pitch, understand the value of networking events, identify and reach out to key contacts, and know how to follow up.
  • What do I need to bring to a networking event?
    The most important thing to bring to a networking event is yourself - but business cards, and a pen or your phone are also handy to get and give information.
  • What do I need to know before attending a networking event?
    Have in mind your objective before you attend, which will help you stay focused and calmer throughout the process, knowing you have a loose plan to work towards when it comes to meeting people.
  • What should I do after making connections at a networking event?
    Always be sure to follow up with a next step, or some other valuable information and another potential meet-up time to help you and your new connection bond.
Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

Leave a comment

Leave a reply

We value your comments but kindly requests all posts are on topic, constructive and respectful. Please review our commenting policy.

Back to Top