We hear it all the time. Successful networking is one of the primary keys to professional advancement and career development. But not everyone knows how to work a room and walk away with having met the right people. For many of us, the idea of walking into an event full of strangers is positively terrifying. You may even be screaming “but I’m an introvert!” The reality is if you follow some simple steps and develop a game plan, anyone can become a better networker.
Networking isn’t just about meeting new people. It’s about using your existing network to expand it. If you’re considering attending a mixer for people in your industry, reach out to a buddy you already know and get them to attend with you. Odds are they’ll know a few people as will you, so together you can help expand the other’s contacts. In short, don’t discount the people you already know.
Don’t just say you’re going to show up to a networking event or industry function. Go with some goals in mind. Are you trying to get recommendations for a supplier that can help your company? Are you hoping to learn about job opportunities? Are you looking for business leads? These are all valid takeaways from networking, but you should consider what success looks like. Perhaps it’s getting five business cards before you leave, or introducing yourself to three new people. Whatever it is, have something in mind and try to stick to it.
Whatever you do, don’t start with “what do you do?” Yes, this is a networking event and theoretically you’re there for a purpose related to your business, but the question can come across as intrusive right off the bat. Instead, make it the third or fourth question you ask. Start off with a comment about the food, the venue, the weather, the fact that drinks are so pricey. There are many ways to start a conversation that let the other person know you are just looking to chat and not relaunch the Spanish Inquisition. A few favorites: “Did you have trouble finding this place?” “How’d you hear about this event?” “Did you catch the game last night?”
Oftentimes we’re so preoccupied with remembering to smile and shake hands that we fail to catch someone’s name. You may have just met the person but already you can’t remember if it’s Ashley or Angela. Sure, it’s embarrassing but there are a few tricks to get better at retention. First, concentrate on hearing what’s said—otherwise you have nothing to remember. Say the person’s name back to them when they introduce themselves: “Great to meet you Angela.” Try associating the name. Maybe you have a friend named Angela or a neighbor. Now, take a second to map that connection in your head. With some practice, you’ll get much better at it.
Just as important as how to properly engage in a chat is how to leave one. Maybe you exchanged a few nice words, learned a bit about what the person does and swapped business cards. Now what? You don’t want to seem rude or uninterested, but you came here to meet a few people, not just one. But sometimes it’s difficult to find a way out, especially if the person is particularly chatty. You can ask if they know where the restroom is located, excuse yourself to freshen up your drink or grab a bite, ask them if you can introduce them to someone else you know, or simply say “please excuse me” and leave it at that.
If you say you’re going to call someone to discuss a project they’re working on, call them. If you say you’ll send them an email to connect over lunch, send the email. Don’t be a business card collector without intention. We all get busy once we’re back at the office but set aside 15 minutes the day after the event to shoot quick “good to meet you” messages. It makes a difference.
If a person tells you they would really like to be introduced to someone else in your organization, help them out. If they’re looking for a contact who does external marketing for organizations like theirs, offer to assist. If a new contact comes through for you on something that helps you win business, send them a box of cookies or a handwritten note. These aren’t huge things but it helps you stick out as someone who values their time. And that means they’re more likely to value yours.
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