People with Aspergers often have the focus and determination to create their own, unique businesses based on their special interests. However, a large part of business success involves networking–getting to know people who are in your field and/or who are potential clients for your business. Since networking is essentially a social skill, having to do this sometimes paralyzes people with Aspergers and stops them from moving forward with their businesses. Fortunately, there are plenty of things Aspies can do to help themselves learn networking skills and succeed.
Tip #1: Practice introducing yourself, making eye contact, and shaking hands.
The basics of introducing yourself are vital to any social relationship. In the business world, people want to get to know those who appear confident, knowledgeable and friendly. So the first thing you need to do is master these skills. (This is true for all relationships, but is especially true when making business connections because people tend to think that people who don’t look you in the eye or don’t introduce themselves confidently don’t know as much about their field of expertise as they claim.)
Role play with friends and family in order to improve your introduction skills in business situations. You may need to work on these skills one at a time before practicing putting them all together and introducing yourself confidently.
Tip #2: Remember that networking is a type of socializing.
Networking isn’t a series of techniques that you use to get people to buy something. It’s a process in which you socialize and get to know people who might be interested in either helping you promote your business or working with you as clients.
So don’t hyperfocus on your goal. It may be tempting to rush through an introduction, hand someone a business card, talk about your business a bit, and then leave. However, this is counter-productive. People don’t like to feel like they’ve been hit by a drive-by salesperson. They like to feel as if you are interested in them, not in just selling them things. Just like you wouldn’t go into an Internet group you’d never been to before, post links to your website, and then drop the group, you shouldn’t approach networking as a game where you try to give out as much information about your business as possible.
Tip #3: Start with people you know well.
Networking is awkward for people who are not used to it, whether they are neurotypical or autistic. Talking to people in your family or circle of friends who may have connections in your field is a good way to begin because it allows you to practice with people you are already comfortable with. For people with Aspergers, it’s doubly important to begin your networking campaign with people you are comfortable with because they can help you become aware of distracting habits or suggest ways to improve your communication.
Start by talking to someone in your family who works in a field you’re interested in. Remember not to rush into what you want the person’s help with. Instead, tell your relative that you are interested in his or her field of work and ask questions about what the person does and how he or she got started. Listen closely to your relative’s answers and converse as naturally as possible. At the end of the conversation, thank the person for their time and ask for feedback.
Tip #4: Remember to listen.
Listening is an important communication skill in general, but is especially important when networking. When you are meeting business contacts, it’s easy to get distracted by your nervousness and what you want to say next. Force yourself to focus on what the other person is saying during the conversation. Make eye contact while he or she is talking (but remember that you should only look into someone’s eyes for 2-3 seconds at a time; more than that may make him or her uncomfortable). When the person has finished, summarize what he or she has said before saying what you want to say. This shows that you have heard the person. Listening closely to other people tells them that you are interested in what they have to say, which automatically makes them more interested in talking with you.
Tip #5: Go to social events.
It’s important to network face-to-face. Facebook and Twitter are also important parts of your networking plan–there’s an entire field of marketing known as social media marketing–but you also need to make connections in your daily life. People who you know or who live in your town can easily refer clients to your business and help you get local exposure. Many people prefer to do business with someone who lives in the same town or who they can talk to face-to-face.
For all these reasons, it’s important to push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone and go to social events. Choose one or two events a month to begin. You should start by socializing with people who you have common interests with; these interests don’t necessarily have to be related to your business. Your goal is to make friends while doing things you enjoy. Let the conversation flow naturally and when someone asks you what you do, tell them confidently and hand them a business card.
Networking is sometimes a difficult skill to learn, especially for people who don’t pick up social cues naturally. However, it is completely possible to learn how to network despite social difficulties you may have. Don’t let fear of networking stop you from getting to know people and promoting your business.
For more great tips for people with Aspergers on how to start your own business, check out my new webinar, How to Make Money When You Can’t Find a Job, on September 8. I am teaching skills such as changing your mindset from employee to entrepreneur, channeling your special interests into a viable business, and taking practical steps to move towards success