Professional networking events can feel like drudgery, even to an extrovert. They’re often at the end of long days, or even in the middle of a long day full of phone calls and deadlines you feel pulled to attend to. So what can you do to stay on top of the meet & greet routine? Here are ten tips to keep your networks fresh:
- Establish goals. Know what you want before you go to any particular event, and know how to achieve it. What sort of function is it? Is it really appropriate to hand out business cards at your cousin’s baby shower? You can network anywhere and anytime, but you’ll have to behave according to your audience and - perhaps more importantly - the host’s expectations. Make sure you have an objective while you’re there and keep it in mind when interacting with others. Measure the success of the goal when it’s over, also - were you able to meet the people you were looking for? How many contacts can you get from it? Keep in mind you don’t always have to aim for hard sales - every new contact is a potential word of mouth referral whether they’ve personally given you business or not.
- Take on volunteer roles. Stay visible active in your community. Be active in your church, take on the kids’ Little League coaching, make sure they’re involved in Scouting and other activities. If you’re nominated to boards and committees, accept the roles. Make sure people know who you are in your community. Not only do you positively contribute to the lives of your friends, family, and neighbors, but you’re passively marketing yourself. Every time your name or your business name shows up on a jersey or in a brochure, it registers with the other participants and attendees. It may seem a little sleazy to be involved just for the name recognition - and it is! The truth is, you should always be civilly engaged to the extent possible, but we get busy. If business provides a little extra incentive to do your part, so be it!
- The early bird catches the worm! There’s no such thing as fashionably late when it comes to the network. “Late” means the deals have been closed without you. Always be one of the first to arrive and stay as late as possible - as long as you’re still working that goal you made and enjoying yourself. If you’re one of the first, you’ll be setting the tone for the night and you’ll be one of the first people everyone sees and remembers. Work your networking goal from the start. If you love to meet people but love to sleep early, working it immediately and aggressively means you might be able to leave and rest as soon as you’re networked out. On the other hand, if you like networking that much but you’re a night owl, if you’re the first there, you have plenty of time to enjoy the event!
- Smile. Depending on the context, this sounds a bit condescending; another word of advice - never tell someone to smile more! (I’m hiding behind the internet and get to explain myself further before you get angry, but it doesn’t work so well in person!) When it comes to networking, a smile on your face makes all the difference. Think about it - a smile is usually welcoming and sends a signal that you’re happy and in a good mood, even pleased to see the other person.
A good smile lifts your face and reaches into your eyes; without it you might just be tired or thoughtful, but people might interpret it as a bad mood. Simple psychology says that a smile and even laughter attracts people, whereas a serious face may make someone apprehensive to engage you. If your goal is networking then, you’ll want to smile, look people in the eye, and be engaged and interested in the conversation.
- Ditch the pitch. Every good business has an elevator pitch. The quick sales pitch that tells the listener what your brand is about, why it’s unique, and why the person should want a part of it. Some people go into a networking event thinking it’s the perfect environ to throw the pitch at 100 people in a night. That isn’t the case though; imagine an event full of 500 people who all want to pitch to 100 others. I guarantee you’ll never be so frustrated in your life. That means everyone is there to sell, no one to buy, and everyone is speaking but no one’s listening. Pitch lightly when appropriate, when someone asks tell them, but be the listener more. That’s what people will remember!
- Share your passions. Your hobbies are much more memorable than your pitch. Is the person you’re talking to a golfer? Invite him to hit the links with you. World traveler? Tell them about your last trip. Or your family, your volunteer projects, or goals. Try steering the conversation away from you to their passions - maybe they love to cook and you need advice on the perfect pasta or steak. Just avoid the topics of religion and politics unless you know the other person’s stance and they happen to agree with you - and the topic won’t drive away bystanders. You aren’t there to convert or argue with anyone, so steer clear of incendiary topics.
- Ask open-ended questions. Nothing kills the conversation quite like being peppered with interview questions and hammering back “Yes,” “No,” or “I don’t know” until you’re blue in the face and desperately seeking an exit. It gets frustrating on your end too, as you search for more to say to rein back in the interest. So out of the gate, avoid yes/no questions and instead of asking, for example, “Do you work in product design, too?” start with “So where do you work?” Instead of “Are you from around here?” could be “Where are you from?” and can take different roads from there - compare the places or bond over similar backgrounds in the same places.
- Conversations are not a game of Monopoly. This is a hard skill to grasp. Someone not a master at the skill of conversation can often find they’re waiting their turn to speak, which basically means they want to monopolize the conversation too, but are at the mercy of a more skilled monopoliser. While storytelling is a fantastic conversation driver, make sure you keep the stories short and leave room for people to cut in. You might have the most interesting life in the world, and maybe you’re renowned for your stories, adventures, and jokes. But networking isn’t about making yourself sound great and it isn’t about making others feel inferior. Tell a good story, definitely! A short one, and invite the stories of your companions, too. Avoid the “one-up” types of stories that include the message “my story is better than yours”. Far more than the impression you make as an interesting person who talked all night, you’ll be remembered for making the other person feel interesting, too.
- Be a resource for others. This is absolutely the most important part of successful networking. If someone needs something - advice, a reference, a contact, really anything that you can provide quickly and without much sacrifice - do it without hesitation. If it’s something bigger, a donation or an investment for a community organization, or something that requires more of your time and input, always consider the request but consider your own resources. Don’t fall into the trap of never saying no and ending up overcommitted, because then you don’t provide anything you commit to, which is worse than saying no in the first place. In the long run, what people are going to remember about you and what will make the most positive impression of you is how generous you were with your time and how helpful you were to them without expectation of something in return. - And the return you aren’t expecting will come back anyway, tenfold.
- Follow up! This is where people drop the ball more than anywhere else when it comes to networking. And it’s easy to do - a quick follow-up email, phone call, or text message can always be something you can do with a free minute later. But you have 1,000 things to do with 1,000 free minutes so it’s going to be awhile, even if your intentions are good at the time. If you attend a networking event, schedule time within a week to do follow-ups with everyone you meet. If you meet someone outside of a scheduled event, but it’s still “networking”, also make follow-up time. Write them into your calendar to remember a follow-up within a few days.
Networking is a necessity in business, and for some of us it’s our fuel - for others it drains our fuel! Whether you are the introvert who dreads the small talk or the extrovert who does so much of it naturally that you have trouble keeping up with your growing circles, you need a method for your skills and a plan to keep active within the radars of the people you meet.
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