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When Julie became the first blind president of her BNI chapter (Business Networking International) she didn’t just lead this group of businesspeople, she also taught them how to network.

What a blind person can teach the sighted about networking
Public speaking and leadership roles can be daunting assignments for a blind person, but in taking on the leadership of her local BNI networking chapter, Dunedin blind woman Julie Woods discovered that the blind can lead the sighted – particularly when it comes to building strong relationships.

When she was asked by her BNI chapter to assume the chapter’s presidency, professional speaker and coach Julie Woods – who markets herself as That Blind Woman – took confidence from the fact that her fellow members believed in her enough to give her the job.

BNI is a networking referral organisation with more than 121 chapters from Dunedin to The Bay of Island. Each chapter comprises between 20 and 40 business owners who meet once a week to network and pass business referrals within a structured programme.

“It’s very difficult to stand up in front of a group of senior business people and talk to them and lead the meeting without being able to make eye contact and gauge audience response. They could be falling asleep or have slipped out the door for all I know,” says Julie.

In her leadership role, Julie focused on five skills most sighted people fail to practise but which, if they did, would vastly improve their communication, leadership and networking practice.
“I don’t have any visual distractions, so focus is key,” says Julie, listing the five skills as:

1. Focusing exclusively on the person you are talking to. “That’s why people close their eyes in church to pray – no distractions,” she says.
2. Really listen carefully to what the person is saying.
3. Learn to read nuances in tone.
4. Use humour to connect quickly – whether one-on-one or to an audience.
5. Make a special effort to remember somebody’s name. Using people’s names is always very powerful in building rapport and relationships.

Julie says assuming the presidency of the chapter was overwhelming to begin with, but she overcame nerves with preparation, rehearsal and simple statements – translated in to Braille – that she could drawn on.
“BNI attracted me as a networking group because it is the same people at the same venue every week – you have no idea how helpful that is, to somebody who is blind. BNI is networking friendly for the blind.”
Julie – who went blind at the age of 31 after being partially sighted since the age of 18 due to inflammation of the retina – is no novice when it comes to taking value from the details of life.

As a mother of two young children, she had to learn new skills like cooking and cleaning, venturing out with a white cane, being gainfully employed and then owning her own business.
She also had to learn to touch type, read Braille, use speech software on the computer, operate a telephone keypad and an Eftpos terminal.

“As I say in my book – ‘How to Make a Silver Lining’ – the more skills you have, the more solutions you have. So I was in a good space to run the BNI meetings.
“The upside is I have no more worries about speeding tickets and bad haircuts. I can just focus on the good stuff. Being blind makes you less image focussed, less judgemental – it’s about appreciating people for who they are.”

by Colin Kennedy