There's no substitute for face to face

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Richenda Wilson explains why the best way to build trust, engagement and rapport with someone is to be in the same room as them.

Body language is powerful stuff. Some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Cicero spotted as much when he wrote that "the actions of the body" express "the sentiments and passions of the soul". "The whole of a person's frame and every look on his face and utterance of his voice are like the strings of a harp and wound according as they are struck by each successive emotion," he added.

Then Darwin's work on the expression of emotions in man and animals inspired zoologists, anthropologists and psychologists to delve deeper into understanding body language and to quantify just how much communication is nonverbal.

We learn about people through what they wear, their accent, their gestures and their facial expressions. When we meet people we get on with, we unconsciously develop a rapport and start to mirror their body movements.

"People in rapport tend to breathe at the same rate, adopt each other's facial expressions, blink at the same rate and use each other's language," explains psychological illusionist Derren Brown in his book Tricks of the Mind.

This then boosts rapport still further and makes us feel more comfortable with each other. In fact, mirroring people's behaviour when you meet them (subtly, mind) can help to build this feeling of rapport and create the sense that you are someone they could do business with.

All of this goes some way to demonstrating just how important it is to meet people if you want to do business with them. In the days of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, it's tempting to think that online social networks can take the place of good old-fashioned human contact - but they can't.

"Online networking has become more prevalent over the past few years, but there is only so much you can do online," believes Charlie Lawson, UK and Ireland national director of business networking group BNI. "It's a good way to start relationships and help them along after you've met people, but nothing beats the atmosphere of a live event.

"A BNI meeting is like a party," he adds. "It's a bit tense at the beginning but then it kicks off and the room fills with lively chatter. Having bodies in a room gets people going."

"People do business with people not with profiles," agrees Luke Cunliffe, principal of Cunliffe Associates, a training and development consultancy specialising in business networking. "The acid test of finding out whether you can do business with someone is actually talking to them face to face."

"The sole purpose of networking online, as far as I'm concerned, is to arrange a meeting," says Matthew Pegler, founder and director of creative learning and development consultancy Altyerre and committee member of the Institute of Directors Young Directors' Forum. "You can't sell anything through email or LinkedIn."

Before you can do business with someone, you need to understand that person, he explains, and you pick up a huge amount by seeing them face to face - especially if you can see them in their own environment, by visiting their office and noticing what their lifestyle is like, what they wear and how they work.

"You need to put yourself in their shoes," says Matthew Pegler, "and you can't do that over the phone."

As business networking expert and former managing director of Business Referral Exchange (BRX) Andy Lopata has said: "I firmly believe that you can only really get to know someone and understand their business when you see the whites of their eyes."

"People do business with people they like and trust," says Dave Clarke, CEO of networking group NRG. "You have to meet them face to face and spend time with them to build that trust."

Business referrals, too, work best when they are passed on face to face.

Word-of-mouth recommendations are becoming increasingly important in online businesses with many retail sites offering customer reviews of the products available but recent research from Mintel found that only 5% of respondents bought a product based on the recommendation of a blogger or chat room. Partners, friends and relatives are still far more influential, generating more than half of recommendations that lead to sales.

"We still prefer a personal recommendation from someone we know and trust," says Chris Haack, senior analyst at Mintel. "Young adults are somewhat more likely to turn to the internet for advice and referrals, but even they listen to their peers first."

Business referral networks, such as BNI and NRG, really work. You meet people, who then meet other people, and a network of trusted personal contacts and referees builds up.

"Make sure you invest enough time in meeting people," says Dave Clarke in his blog. "You can't engage in enough conversations personally so make sure that you are building a trusted network of advocates. Your advocates will be talking positively about you when you are not there."

Commercial lawyer David Glass is a great believer in the power of networking groups to generate business. He attends three or four meetings a week at various times of day, and has generated a lot of business through them. "I prefer the mobile cocktail parties to the fixed-seat dinners," he says, "as the latter are more expensive and are only productive if you happen to be sitting between the right people."

Face-to-face networking is also very valuable to photographer Dianna Bonner. She is in the enviable position of being able to practise her profession when she goes to events.

She has taken photographs at meetings of event management network London Launch and networking group Ecademy. "I'm working and I'm networking at the same time," she explains.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to demonstrate what they do at a networking meeting: some of us have to make do with talking about it. But talking is crucial to engage people and build trust. If it's only possible to do business with someone when you've walked a mile in their shoes, it's vital to know what those shoes look like.

Cunliffe Associates offer an in house coaching service for executives, teams or one to one which includes effective networking, improving leadership and team communication.

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