The robotic nature of traditional networking events often feels transactional. You enter, schmooze, hand out business cards, receive some in return, then leave. It’s not much fun, especially if the connections you make don’t pay off.
Outside of rooms full of stuffy businessmen and small talk, networking can take unusual forms. Sometimes when you’re least expecting it and with added benefits.
"When you speak to people in a non-business environment, more success comes out of it, because it’s not forced," says Jules Greaves, owner of Susie in the Sky, a luxury handbag brand, who met a like-minded businesswoman during a gym workout a couple of months ago, who would later open doors for her.
After discussing what they did for a living it turned out she presented for QVC. The encounter led to Greaves getting a personal introduction to the buyers at the shopping channel, with whom she’s set up meetings to discuss the possibility of having her own show.
Positive body language, strong handshakes and good eye contact are powerful tools that can help promote your business ideas to a room full of strangers, but these goes out the window at the gym. Exposed bodies and clammy palms may not seem an attractive way to sell yourself, however, Greaves says that the "shared experience" levels the playing field and allows you to open up immediately. You may even find yourself talking about home life, making that connection you’ve just made even more intimate.
"Exercise releases endorphins, which makes people’s minds and outlooks a lot happier than if they were at a traditional event," she adds.
Happy hormones may help you relax at a gym, but what about at a sauna, where all the bits and bobs can be on show as you work up a sweat? Naked networking is big in Finland. Even the country’s ambassadors have been known to use saunas to build diplomatic relationships.
Finding yourself surrounded by people who are starkers may be a startling situation to be in, but it can be easy to maintain focus, says Brad Burton, self-confessed networking guru, founder of social business 4Networking and author of the motivational guide Get Off Your Arse Too.
"You have two options. Look everywhere apart from the other individual or, as I did, engage in conversation. You just don’t know whether the sweating, rotund 50-year old could be the client [or contact] for you, until you start chatting.
"If you can live with the downside of it being a bit weird, the long-term business benefits can outweigh any short-term embarrassment."
Burton’s experience of baring all led to him becoming a regular, keynote speaker at Europe’s biggest business show. He has also made connections in a beer garden, on a train and during a visit to Disney World with his children.
Paddle board pitching
Jim Cregan, co-founder of Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, says that he had a chance encounter when paddle boarding. "A swimmer came by and asked, 'excuse me, are you Jimmy…?'. I said yes, hopped off, and we treaded water together for about 10 minutes, chatting all things business, before we went in our own directions."
Kian Siabi, director of office agency at Making Moves, says he met a director of business development, who was on a hen do, at a rave. They "swapped details on the dance floor, in the middle of a DJ set".
Don't get drunk
According to standard networking rules, you shouldn’t consume too many glasses of wine when hobnobbing, and the lines between professional socialising and flirting are very blurry. But this doesn’t mean losing your inhibitions is incompatible with making connections and finding potential business opportunities. As Cameron Worth, founder of SharpEnd, an agency helping brands to embrace the internet of things (IoT), found out.
"I was at Glastonbury in 2013 and I took part in 'tantric' dating, where a bunch of strangers all assumed the form of an animal - I was a tiger - and frolicked about together," says Worth. "When we returned to human form, my date and I got talking. When asked, I told her I worked in emerging technologies; coincidentally, she was marketing director of a large shopping chain and fluent in the IoT. We now work on strategy projects together.
"Whenever we’re in meetings or speaking professionally, I’m reminded of her rolling around like a panda, pretending to eat bamboo."