How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Rupert Wesson, Academy Director at Debrett's, on how to make friends and influence people in the year ahead

Networking is like design, table service, or the cut of a suit – when it’s done well, you don’t notice it at all. The best networkers are the ones, then, who don’t really network in any traditional sense – they charm us, connect with us, and intrigue us, without it ever looking like business-as-usual at Snake Oil Incorporated.

But, just because it’s effortless, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. With that in mind, we sat down with Rupert Wesson, the Academy Director at Debrett’s, (and thus one of the first names in modern business etiquette), and asked him to give us the inside line.

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Be human, or at the very least yourself

“The key thing to remembers is that all events where you might be networking have a business and a social element to them.” Rupert begins. “The social part in this country is as important as the business element, if not more so.”

As such, it pays to be relaxed, friendly, and polite. You may be in a business scenario, but you don’t need to be rigid, clinical and business-like.

“Saying hello, saying nice to meet you – and actually meaning it – that’s a very good way to start.” says Rupert. “Don’t see it as stage one of a process in which the end goal is a deal or a job. And don’t treat every conversation as an allotted period of time that is to be used as efficiently as possible. This isn’t speed dating.”

If you treat these things like a tickbox exercise, you’ll leave people feeling cold and uninterested. There is no set routine. Play every situation differently, and treat everyone as individuals.

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Be a long jumper as well as a high jumper

“The reality of networking is that, really, it’s not about your credentials.” Rupert says. “Don’t name drop your CV. In all probability, most of the people in the room will have CVs fairly similar to yours. The differentiating factor is personality.”

“The great analogy is with high jumpers and long jumpers. In interview scenarios, people treat their candidates like high jumpers, and raise the bar inch by inch based on their qualifications until there are about four left.” he explains. “Then they’ll switch the event to long jump, and ask the question – would I like to work with these people? And suddenly, all those qualifications don’t matter at all, and your personality and the connections you’ve made matter a great deal.”

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Don’t fawn over your heroes

So often, the biggest moments and opportunities in your career will blindside you, looming out of the blue in a lift or in line for a coffee. You may have thirty seconds to impress someone who could change your career trajectory instantly – a C-suite executive at a company you’ve long wanted to work for, for example. But how do you use those tiny intervals of fate to swing things to your advantage?

“It’s a bit like meeting your celebrity heroes.” Says Rupert. “Don’t fawn over them. In reality, saying ‘I like your work’, in so many words, does a pretty good job.”

You might grab their attention by asking about a specific incident, case study or deal. Even something as simple as asking them about their experiences can be enough to lever the door ajar.

“Simple, open-ended comments like ‘I’d love to find out more about x’ or “I was very interested in this deal’ or even ‘here’s what I might have done differently’ can work in your favour” says Rupert. “People like to be engaged.”

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Prepare a one line summary, not a half-hour soliloquy

In most networking scenarios, a little preparation goes a long way. But a too-tightly prepared personal pitch can make your audience feel a bit like they’re settling in for a lengthy Power Point presentation by someone with a particular weakness for clip art and indulgent animations.

“It’s good to have a framework – a one line sentence that describes what you do and positions you as someone of potential interest to your acquaintance. And it’s no bad thing to have rehearsed it, to make sure it’s short and sharp and to the point” Rupert says. “But don’t reel off your entire CV, or stick too rigidly to a script.”

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Do some research, but don’t be a stalker

Having a good background knowledge on someone is no bad thing, and can be a quick and easy way to impress. But it’s all about context, as Rupert explains. 

“If you said ‘I particularly wanted to speak to you about a deal you did last year’, and then went on to discuss something that is relevant to your field of expertise, then that’s pretty impressive and the person will actually be flattered that you’ve taken an interest.”

“But if you bring things up that have no real relevance, and you say something like ‘didn’t you work here or here in 1987?’, just to show that you’ve researched them, then that very quickly slips into stalkerdom territory.”

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

No peacocking, please

Some guidebooks would have you follow the peacock principle of self promotion – wear something loud, bright or distinctive, and not only will you stand out in a busy room, but the people that you talk to will remember you at a later date.

But Rupert advises quietly against these sort of ploys. “It’s a very high risk strategy” he says. “Being the guy in the room with the bow tie risks undermining your credibility.”

Instead, he says, you should “make yourself memorable by forming a genuine connection.”

How to network without it looking like you’re networking

Learn to catch as well as throw

“It’s all about push and pull. If you push too hard, people will push back, and you won’t get anywhere.” Says Rupert.

The key, he believes, it to catch as well as throw. “Think about baseball outfielders.” Rupert says. “They have one gloved hand for catching, and one ungloved hand for throwing. They’d be absolutely useless if they only had one or the other.”

A case in point is the follow-up after an event or a chance encounter.

“In the digital age there’s no such a thing as too soon. Sending someone a LinkedIn request in the taxi home can be a very good thing. Thanking people as soon as possible will also come across well.” Rupert reminds us.

“But writing out a business proposal in the back of the taxi – now that won’t look so good. Nor will trying to nail down a specific time, date and place for a follow up meeting on your first encounter.”

While you’re in the mood to make friends and influence people, why not take a look at some of our favourite business accessories of the moment?

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