Networking is awkward. Consciously volunteering to go to an event to make small talk with a bunch of strangers seems like the last thing someone would choose to do. I remember my first networking event: I mostly stood in the corner, waiting for someone to approach me. Nobody did. It was wildly unsuccessful.
But now - well, now I actually love networking. I enjoy meeting new people. I enjoy learning about what others are doing. And, perhaps the most important part of networking - I enjoy talking about myself.
There are many reasons people don’t like to network (see above: Networking is awkward). However, if you are looking to build a business (or solicit sponsors, or land a job…you fill in your blank), you need to learn how to do it. And how to do it well. The connections you make are essential to moving your cause forward.
I had to get over my awkwardness (well, as much as I could. I’m still quite awkward) and figure out how to make the most out of making these connections (more on that in a future article). Through these connections I’ve been able to acquire (and keep) more new clients in the two years since starting my consulting firm than I can count on both hands.
Below are the tips I’ve acquired over the 8,274 networking events I’ve gone to in the last couple of years. (Note: I may have taken a little liberty with that number).
So, how did I (mostly) get over my awkwardness? Being prepared for the networking event is incredibly helpful (read on for more about that). When it comes down to it, though, so much of being successful at one of these events is really just having the right attitude. Get yourself psyched to meet new people and make new connections. You can do that in a number of ways: talk to a positive friend before you go to the event. Talk to yourself to get pumped up (I have a friend who Stuart Smalley’s herself in the mirror in the bathroom right when she gets to an event). Take a walk in some fresh air. Sit quietly and focus on opening yourself up to new connections. Smile. If you aren’t feeling it, then fake it until you make it. You might go into the event feeling awkward and self-conscious, but if you pretend that you’re really confident and having a great time, you may just find yourself actually feeling confident and actually having a great time.
So, to find a networking event that is interesting to you, search for organizations in your area that publish their events calendar. You’ll find that there are often interesting speakers or presentations that start and end with a networking hour. Some organizations even offer events that are solely for networking. Many times you can go to these for free, or at a reduced student or member rate.
Once you’ve located the event(s) you want to attend, prepare for the event as you would an interview or an important presentation, because networking really is a bit of both (on a smaller scale). You can prepare by determining who the other attendees may be. You’ll want to perfect your elevator speech: a 30-60 second blurb of what you want people to know about you. (Note that your blurb can and probably should vary by your audience). You want to succinctly and memorably share your YOU, and you definitely don’t want to sound like a robot with a canned speech. You should probably practice your elevator speech at some point before the event - this will make you comfortable and able to tell people what they need to know about you instead of just reciting some words. Also, a very important part of your assembly is bringing business cards and ensuring your LinkedIN profile is up-to-date (more on those two later).
When getting ready to attend the event, consider wearing something memorable and/or something that could be a potential conversation starter. I have a white blazer that I wear to many events because it helps me stand out - this is even how some people remember me when we meet up again (“Hey! Meg White Blazer!”) I also have mermaid leggings that are a definite conversation starter, but definitely not right for some of the events I attend. Another tip: when you arrive (or shortly after eating), be sure to give yourself a look in the mirror or on your phone (camera mode: SELFIE). This may sound a bit vain, but it’s quite disconcerting to pop in the restroom after an hour of meeting new people to discover your hair is sticking up or you have a big piece of spinach in between your front teeth (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience). Knowing you look presentable will likely improve your attitude and surely improve your confidence as you network.
One of my favorite sayings is “If you’re not early, you’re late.” Though people often want to seem important and mysterious and arrive fashionably late, I like to get there early for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m getting more bang for my buck (if the event costs money). Even if it was free, I’m ensuring I’ll meet as many people as possible because I’ll be able to see them all as they arrive; and 2) often the event host is hanging around, waiting for the guests. This is a great time to say “hi”, offer to help with last minute preparations, and make an immediate connection with someone important to the event. This someone will likely know many people coming and can introduce you as “that person who came early and helped out”. And that’s sure a nice way to meet people.
If there’s booze, and you drink, go ahead and have one. Or do whatever it is you need to do to relax and not take yourself so seriously (maybe try the Stuart Smalley thing. I’ve seen it work). A little liquid courage never hurt, and it may make you a little more comfortable in approaching strangers. However, I’m sure I don’t need to warn you not to have too many. You don’t want to be that guy (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience).
You may find it helpful to bring a friend or colleague to the event with you. Ensure you are bringing someone who can support your brand and who represents you in the way that you’re looking to present yourself. Choose someone that you are proud to introduce to your new connections and that maybe you are excited to talk about what he or she is doing (you never know what may strike a chord with your new connections). However, try not to let this friend or colleague become your networking crutch. A networking event isn’t the time to catch up with your buddy - it’s the time to make new connections.
Once you’re in the zone - meeting people, shaking hands, kissing babies - make sure you have a plan for how to remember the people you meet. Business cards are a great way to keep track of the interactions you’re making. Come up with a system to organize the cards: maybe your left pocket is for leads and right is for social connections. I carry around my business card holder to hand out my own cards. As I receive others’ cards, I put them in order with my most promising connection on top. If people don’t have cards, you’ll need to adapt and come up with a system that works for you. I’ll often make a quick note on my iPhone (aka personal assistant, Siri) to capture my new contact’s name and email, as well as a quick relevant note to remind me of our conversation.
You did it! You wake up the morning after a networking event and feel excited about all of the potential from the day before. You may even pat yourself on the back for nailing your elevator speech or not over-imbibing. But, your work is not done yet, my friend. You still need to align with your new connections. Based on your business card (or people-remembering) system, ensure you prioritize and follow up with your new network. I often start with an email to say how nice it was to meet that person, interjecting a specific topic we discussed and ending with how we may connect again sometime soon to discuss that topic further. I follow up the email with a LinkedIN invitation as a way to virtually share my resume with my new connections and cement that face-and-name recognition.
Networking may seem like a pass/fail option, if you try to wing it. With a little bit of prep and the right attitude, however, I’m sure you’ll ace it.