Networking: How to connect without boring prospects
You have 60 seconds to impress a roomful of prospective clients. What do you say? How do you say it? Will the prospects even care? Feeling nervous yet?
The key to a successful networking presentation is to be engaging, interesting and trustworthy. But beyond the actual networking mechanics, many can’t escape the length of time they’re expected to speak. For some, 60 seconds isn’t long enough. For others, it’s 60 seconds too long.
The 60-second network pitch has long been a component of many firms’ referral acquisition. Accountants attending network groups such as their local Business Network International (BNI) chapter are expected to pitch to prospective business clients as to why they should come to them, rather than another local accountant.
However, while accountants spend many years gaining qualifications none of these includes speaking. This communication skill may actually mean more in a networking environment than the technical skills accountants want to discuss.
What sets you out from the crowd?
As recently discussed on the site, longtime AccountingWEB contributor Jennifer Adams joined the business network BWC after realising BNI wasn’t for her. The group works in a similar way to the BNI, according to Adams, with monthly meetings. But, as Adams blogged on AccountingWEB, her group is not restricted to only one profession. So, naturally, Adams makes sure she doesn’t sit next to other accountants during her one-minute sales pitch.
However, Adams still has to compete against her fellow accountants for the hearts and minds of other attendees, and that forces her to consider how she can make her pitch different from the other accountants. Turning to the Any Answers last week for help, Adams said: “We all want to give a personal service and keep in touch with clients, be there when they need us.”
So, what can you say that sets you apart from the crowd? Being specific is one way to target a particular client. “Most accountants who go to the BNIs and other local networking events tend to go after local small business owners,” said Heather Townsend. “If you are much more specific then you will stand out much more than the others because you are different.”
She added: “Think about how you help this specific segment of a client base and go deeper than 'pay less tax' or 'make more profit', as every accountant says this.”
But a successful introduction goes beyond just the words you say. One of the three accountants in Adams’ networking group is an employee of a high street accountant and her job is to sell her firm. So naturally, she is more confident than Adams in her one-minute introduction.
‘You've got to make them feel something’
Therein lies the rub. “People always remember how you make them feel not what you say,” accountant communication trainer Steve Trister told AccountingWEB. “Making them feel numb and wanting to go to sleep doesn't cut it. If you don't nail that 60 seconds, there is a strong chance people won't talk to you,” said Trister.
What causes some accountants to disconnect with their audience is due to something Trister calls Vomiticus Contentinaatum. It is essentially puking out content. “The person delivering the message talks and talk and talks,” said Trister. “They're so focused on getting the content out, that they have no awareness of how they're coming across, the impact they're making and how they're perceived.”
The first step, according to Trister, is to create an emotional connection. But cruelly or not, over the years, accountants have been saddled with the non-charismatic stereotype. And, Trister said, if accountants don’t realise how they come across there is a chance may inadvertently bore the person they’re speaking to.
One tip to help accountants become aware of how they come across is to film themselves speaking and then watch it back. One of the first things they’ll realise is the energy they’re speaking at. “Most of the time, people have a massive lack of energy,” said Trister. “Because energy is transferable - negative or positive - the other person feels that at some level.
Therefore, he said, “The amount of oomph they put into what they're saying is absolutely critical”.
How to stand out
Trister believes communication skills are only going to become more pivotal in the accountancy profession. “Accountants have focussed on the services they provide, so there hasn't been a need on a whole for accountants to improve their communication skills,” he said.
But the shift towards the much-vaunted advisory services as the silver bullet to the advent of technology means accountants will need to speak more with clients, he said.
This brings us back to Adams’ original predicament. In this new environment, what is going to make accountants stand out?
It may sound glib but the simple answer is to just be you. Trister points to telling funny client stories is one-way accountants can differentiate themselves. “Making people laugh is brilliant in 60 seconds because 99.9% of people don't do it,” he said.
A 13-year veteran of the weekly BNI 60-second presentation, AccountingWEB member accountantccole achieves a similar result with props. “I've used Christmas crackers to talk about staff entertaining, fake napkin money to talk about trivial benefits and a tin of beans for being a "bean counter".” But, she added, “Poems or songs work OK too, but need preparation”.
Presentations as short as 15 seconds may only give the speaker enough time to repeat their name and business or what clients they’re looking for. But the BNI presentation format the accountantccole shared on Any Answers suggested telling a story for talks 30 seconds or longer.
This chimes with Trister’s advice of saying something different from the norm. “Share how you helped a client and what that’s allowed them to do, rather than ‘we do this’ or ‘we do that’. People have heard it hundreds of time. People who go for the bog standard 60 seconds are going to fall on deaf ears.”
Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.