As you read this on Sunday, I should be driving toward my first visit to an area that Conde Nast Traveler magazine describes as "one of the most beautiful places in Ireland" - Co Donegal. Under Letterkenny's towering spire of St Eunan's Cathedral and near the rushing water of the River Swilly, I will be joining a group of other industry experts, sharing our stories with business leaders during the kick-off to Local Enterprise Week on Monday.
Thanks, Brenda and Eve Anne for inviting me to give a keynote and purposeful communications workshop for this conference.
Sharing stories is a vital part of business communications. Charts and graphs for projected sales targets can be dull and uninspiring. Lectures about new HR policies can lull teething babies to sleep. A company's visions, strategies and goals only come to life when they're linked to a compelling, often personal, story. And how do we best share stories? Face-to-face, as part of that over-used yet essential business buzzword we're going to focus on today: networking.
1 The importance of ongoing networking
Why network? I spoke with Conor Morris, managing director of Ireland's Executive Institute. As with the Local Enterprise Offices around the country, facilitating networking is a commitment of the Executive Institute, which arranges several events around Dublin and Cork. "Networking is terribly important," Conor said. "You can learn from other organisations that have already faced a challenge you may be facing.
"We also run a CEO series. It can be lonely at the top and they rarely seek support from their own colleagues. If you're a senior leader, you may meet another senior leader who can help you to not feel alone in your struggle."
2 Networking for younger professionals
If you're not a manager or a CEO, don't stop reading. Networking is not reserved for seasoned professionals. In fact, earlier this week, I had a great conversation with an actress in her 20s who recently moved back to Ireland after years in the off-Broadway scene in New York. Now based in Cork, she's eager to expand her reach to Dublin, so she enrolled for a night class on Thursdays.
When I recommended that she leverage Thursday afternoons in Dublin as a strategic time to meet with theatre professionals, she was initially surprised.
"Oh! I had planned to have a lie-in during the day," she said. "Nope!" I replied. "Instead, you'll reach out to loads of Dublin contacts to let them know you're available for meetings during the day of your class."
Conor agrees. "Networking is like a pension; you need to start early. The more you invest in your 20s, the more you'll have in your 30s and the same for your 40s and into your 50s," he said. Speaking of continuing to network, I must point out that I was introduced to Conor through a mutual contact last month.
When we met, he reminded me that my own commitment to networking could be powered up. Upon Conor's suggestion, I attended a networking event the next week and met several new and interesting people. It is always a thrill to do so.
But back to networking strategies for you, er, younger professionals. I know some of you might feel intimidated at the thought of attending a function and initiating a conversation. Conor offered this advice: "Ask open-ended questions - 'what speaker have you come to hear? What business are you in?'.
"Express a sincere interest in what the other person is saying. Remember that my most interesting topic is actually me and the more you ask me about myself, the more interesting I think you are."
3 Online or in person?
Perhaps you, as the young professional, will contend that social media networking has replaced the in-person version. Conor disagrees. "I'm active on social, but in reality, I find physical networking much more effective," he said.
Likewise, while I post regularly on LinkedIn and Instagram, nothing beats a group of real human beings when I want to roll out a new interactive leadership communications exercise, or brainstorm about a trend in professional development. As Conor said: "We will become obsolete if we don't reinvent ourselves. You must be able to show an employer that you have a keen interest in staying relevant and keeping up to date."
4 Women and networking
Unless it's a specific event aimed at female professionals, I have never been to a networking function with more women in attendance than men. In keeping with those lower participant numbers, Conor said he regularly needs to ask four times more women to speak just to get equal representation at conferences.
"I would be very much encouraging women to speak more, to prioritise it more," he said.
No matter your age, your seniority or your gender, it's time to capitalise on your next networking event. As Conor said: "You're either a sponge or you're a stone. The world is changing much quicker than it's ever changed in the past. You need to be a sponge to survive. Stones sink to the bottom."
NEXT WEEK ON THE COMMUNICATOR:
In honour of International Women's Day, look forward to inspiring stories from some top female leaders.
Sunday Indo Business