Networking Notworking

By Steph Cutler

‘Networking, Networking’, Networking is the business equivalent of the political mantra ‘Education, Education, Education’. It is the key to business start up, business sustainability and business development.

Networking events organised to provide networking opportunities may suit some, but I think there is an art to networking at these events. 

Whilst sitting in front of a grant awarding panel recently, one of the panellists commented on the size of the entertainment expenditure on my cash flow projections. “What can I say”, I said, “I am a very sociable person!” I love to meet people. It is by listening to others that I learn everything from how best to promote a service to how not to behave.

These things may make me approachable, likeable and good company but they do not necessarily make me a good networker.

To be a good networker at these events, you need to plan your time and work the room with military precision. You need to boldly approach strangers, strike up conversation, quickly ascertain whether there is potential for business, and be able to retreat to the next stranger if there is not.

So, despite being a confident communicator, and being able to talk credibly and with enthusiasm about my business, I struggle at these events. I find myself gravitating towards the buffet and comfort-eating to ease the pain. This, I know, is more likely to increase my dress size than my client base!

I struggle for another reason: I am visually impaired. What this practically means is that I can’t see the delegates list; I can’t see your name badge; and I can’t see very well what’s on the buffet I can be found propping up. I do not look visually impaired.  In fact, I can walk up to you, make conversation and you would be none the wiser, which, in itself, is part of what makes attending a struggle. I don’t know who I am talking to.  I therefore can’t identify attendees I would particularly like to speak with, and not only that, but I sometimes struggle to identify who I have just spoken with.

In for a penny in for a pound.  I rock on up to fellow attendees and introduce myself and ask their name, at which point they will more often than not point to their name badge, but I am none the wiser. I then have to decide whether to continue whilst being unsure of who they are and what they do, which is tempting but not ideal, or explain that I can’t see the badge. The latter approach can have a number of different responses which mostly end in the same result. “Have you forgotten your glasses?” tends to just mean that getting to the awkward silence takes a little longer and can be a little more awkward, when I have no choice but to gently explain I am actually registered blind. Telling them of my acquired sight loss does at least have the advantage of introducing my disability awareness consultancy into the conversation.

On my first networking event, I came horribly close to passing my empty plate to a fellow delegate, mistaking him for a waiter! Suppressing the urge to burst into laughter at my near ‘Bridget Jones moment’ was made no easier as I then found myself seated next to the waiter look-a-like for the rest of the evening!

The last networking event I attended was a breakfast meeting with an unsociably early start. On arrival, I pinned on my name badge. The company name read, ‘Open Eyed’ but the wearer was anything but! Had I known the company of some middle class, middle aged pricks in suits beckoned I would have stayed under my duvet! I replied to one of the aforementioned, telling him that I own a disability awareness consultancy. On hearing this he proceeded to tell me how ridiculous it was that disabled people should want to be able to access services. Even more ‘ridiculous’ was the fact that he had been forced to install a disabled toilet in his building. With increasing incredulity, he went on to say that nobody disabled would ever use it because the entrance to his building was not wide enough to fit a wheel chair through. I agreed that was ‘ridiculous’ but we were poles apart with our reasons why. I considered saying I hoped he wouldn’t have an accident on his way home as, if he found himself required to use a wheelchair he would not be able to get into his office to use his expensive toilet, but I refrained. The name badge routine hadn’t occurred and so he was unaware of my sight loss and I was therefore blissfully unaware of his name!

I then met Mr Small Town CV Consultant. He asked me what I did and he responded with, “That’s nice”, then laughing he continued, “but c’mon, would you really tell a potential employer that you were disabled?” To this, I smiled and said, “I am and I do” but this went right over his balding head. Mr ‘Disabled Toilet’ and Mr ‘Small town CV Consultant’ shared the love of the sound of their voices, whilst making nonsensical and insensitive points. I asked the latter to consider that the person who, at the time, arguably held one of the most powerful jobs in the country was totally blind. I left him to ponder David Blunkett’s CV dilemma and made a bee-line for the buffet!

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Steph Cutler had a successful career in the fashion industry when she experienced unexpected sight loss. Determined from the start, she began adapting to her new challenges. This led her to take a new direction and she ventured into self-employment.

Steph is now a business start-up coach and runs workshops providing disabled people with the confidence and courage to consider self-employment or to grow an existing business. She is also a popular inspirational speaker at business events.

Follow Steph’s blog at http://making-lemonade.co.uk

© Steph Cutler 2006

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