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No one’s going to argue the importance of networking. But that doesn’t mean everyone is clamoring to go do it—especially if you fall into the categories of (a) shy, (b) busy, or (c) conversationally challenged.

Luckily, Karl M. Gibbons, president of the Naples-based Third Eye Management & Associates and chairman and president of the local education and networking group Entrepreneur Society of America, has amassed a pretty good bag of tricks when it comes to making business connections. Here he walks us through the basics of networking. Treat it as a primer if you’re new to or struggling with it; if you’re more experienced, check to see if you are making some of the common networking errors that Gibbons sees.

Join the right group.

There are lots of networking organizations in Southwest Florida. For the best results, choose quality over quantity. “People try to attend a lot of different meetings, which is the wrong approach,” says Gibbons. “I always advise people to take the same approach as they would when they buy a car.” Research and even “test drive” several networking options to see which one is best for you.

Embrace networking with the right attitude.

That means realizing it’s not all about you. “The key to networking, without a shadow of a doubt, is helping others,” says Gibbons. “If you don’t serve, you won’t get referred. You’ve got to focus on helping others first. It’s not about handing out and collecting business cards. It is a state of mind—it’s genuinely wanting to help somebody. It’s about building long-term relationships, and that’s the most cost-effective way of doing business.”

Get involved.

Attending one networking meeting and sitting quietly at a table won’t produce much in the way of results. Consistency is important. The more you show up, the more people will notice you—and notice when you’re not there.

Gibbons also recommends getting- ting involved in committees and programs that are part of your networking group. “People do business with people they know and trust,” he says. “They get very wary of people who only turn up at meetings once or twice a year.”

Be curious.

Look beyond the title or nametag of the people you meet. “You’ve got to get to know people, not what they do,” says Gibbons.

The best networking is often done outside of group events. “At the networking meetings, that’s where you make the connections,” says Gibbons. “The business is done on the follow-up. It’s when you meet for coffee or lunch or drinks after work. You know nothing about somebody just off of their business card and the five minutes you had to say ‘hello.’ People who invest time for one-on-ones are far more successful at networking than people who just show up to the meetings.”

Give people a reason to talk to you.

This advice can be especially helpful for folks who are shy or intimidated by networking. Gibbons suggests wearing your favorite shoes or blouse or necklace—items of clothing or accessories people always compliment. “Wear them, because you know someone is going to talk to you, and there you go, the conversation has started instantly,” he says.

Or show your sense of humor to get people intrigued. “On those ‘hello’ badges write, ‘Hello, my name is Batman or Trouble,’” he says. “Or put your name badge upside down. You’re forcing people to connect with you as opposed to you having to connect with them.”

Stop talking and listen.

“You’ve only got to open the door and give people the opportunity to talk to you,” says Gibbons. “And then what you have to do is listen. People who are bad at networking don’t want to listen; they want to tell you. But it’s a two- way street. You’ll tell me when you’re interested and want to know about me, but so often everyone makes it all about them.”

Get out of your comfort zone.

If you go to a networking event with your spouse or business partner, don’t sit together. “If you split up, you’ve just increased your networking opportunities by 100 percent,” says Gibbons.

Don’t choose the same seat at every meeting either. “Sit by someone you don’t know,” he says. “If you sit in the same place next to the same person every time, you’re not networking. You’re just having lunch or a drink with your pal.”​

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