Networking Your Way to Success

You don’t have to spend hours making cold calls or squander money on invisible advertisements in order to find new clients. In fact, savvy businesspeople–technical writers included–know the best way to expand your client base is by leveraging the resources you already have.

You might ask, “What resources?” Well, pull out your personal address book. This database of contacts–friends, relatives, and co-workers–is a gold mine when prospecting for business. By knowing how and who to ask, you can soon have as much business as you can handle!

Take the case of Jerri Ledford of Nashville, TN. Ledford answered an announcement for a temporary job forwarded from a friend. “I sent an e-mail describing my experience and landed some steady work,” Ledford says.

A few weeks after this initial contact, Ledford got a phone call. The contact had recommended her to an acquaintance, another writer looking for help. By networking, Ledford parlayed her original investment–an e-mail that took five minutes to compose–into thousands of dollars in projects, in a few months’ time. The best part? You can do it, too, by following a few rules to networking success.

Rule #1: Figure Out What You Want.  It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to decide exactly what it is you want for your technical writing career. You have to know what you want before you can get it, so be concrete: More clients? Expansion into a different field? Bigger projects from a handful of “good” clients? Summarize your goal in a five-second “hook” to use in networking.

This next bit of advice may sound dumb, but practice your hook. Stand in front of the mirror, or in front of a friend, and repeat your hook over and over until you can say it so smoothly that it comes out like honey. This is a technique used by screenwriters and wannabe entrepreneurs around the country. After all, you never know who you’re going to meet in the elevator, on line for the restroom, or on the subway.

Rule #2: Expand Your Perspective.  As you leaf through your address book, you may think you don’t know anyone who can help you. Nothing could be further than the truth. A good network includes not just professional contacts, but personal acquaintances as well. Some of my most lucrative assignments have come from a friend or family member, not from a “real” contact. I received a $3000 project for an e-commerce company from a high school pal, and a series of technical articles as a referral from a colleague I’d met on an online forum.

And, most importantly, these people know you and want to see you succeed. They’re willing to put themselves out a bit in order to help you make it. And if they aren’t? Well, then, there’s nothing like a request for help to separate your friends from the “others” in your life.

Rule #3: Ask, Ask, Ask.  Every time you have a conversation of any length with someone in your network, throw in your hook. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it–just work it in casually (that’s what all that practicing was good for!). These kinds of requests are good to keep conversation moving, and don’t forget that people actually like to help other people.

When you receive a referral, note the name and follow up–usually phone or e-mail are the best methods. Introduce yourself, tell who referred you, and provide a brief background about your experience. Then give them your hook, ending with the same question: Do they know anyone who might be able to help?

Rule #4: Do Your Best Work–Always. Your best source of business can be your current client base, as it was for Jerri Ledford. By doing your best work, you set yourself up for more business from your current clients as well as referrals to new contacts. Yes, your current clients might fear losing you by referring you to other companies looking for work–but that just might encourage them to throw some more lucrative projects your way in order to keep you around.

Rule #5: Maintain your Network.  The people with the strongest networks are those who offer help before they ask others for it. “I try to be sensitive to what other people need to do their best work–and I offer it if I come across it, no strings attached,” says consultant Doretta Thompson of Toronto. Thompson recently billed over $140,000 (Canadian) for a project referred from a friend–someone Thompson herself had helped out a few years back.

The real key to networking is to keep in touch with people consistently, not just when you need something. And most importantly, give at least as much as you get. Successful networks must have threads running in both directions to be of any support.


Lain is a freelance journalist who has written on topics as diverse as hybrid fiber/coax telecommunications systems and massage therapy. A former technical writer, she now authors The Parent Trap, a nationally distributed parenting column and can be reached at Lainie9@aol.com.

Read more articles from Lain Chroust Ehmann