Recently I have been attending lots of networking events, and making lots of small talk in the process. These things tend to be cyclical for me, as I may go to a bunch in one month and none the next. But this recent round got me thinking, and doing some research, about how to make these events more successful.
Here are five things that work for me:
1) Have a plan.
Often times it seems we are invited to something, we think about it for a second, mindlessly put it on our calendar, and simply show up, with no other forethought. I probably haven’t considered who this group is, what type of people will be in attendance, what I should use for conversation starters, even how I should dress. This lack of preparation could show up in the form of a mistake or faux pas, or simply result in leaving the event with a lack of meaningful connections. So just give some thought to the audience and what it is you want out of your time there.
2) Arrive early.
I was invited to a meet and greet with the global president of an entrepreneur’s organization I have been a member of. He was scheduled to host some local dignitaries, then they would open it up to the general membership for 90 minutes. I finished up work for the day, turned on the TV for a few minutes to relax, then changed into a suit and tie, and made the drive to the event. All that took more time than anticipated and instead of arriving fashionably late, say halfway through the scheduled time, it was more like two-thirds of the way through the event. And as it turned out, I was simply late. It had started earlier than scheduled, and ended earlier as well. In fact, I literally shook hands with the guy I did actually want to meet as he was walking out the door. Arriving early also allows you to be in the middle of emerging conversations, and gives you a headstart on knowing others in the room.
3) Pay attention to your introduction(s).
Remember that other people’s impressions of you are formed very, very quickly, in a matter of seconds in fact, and that a good opening line is important. If possible, think about trying to pique someone’s interest or attracting their attention with a non-standard line. The other day I was at an event at a large, downtown law firm, and the multi-level offices with floor-to-ceiling windows and views were absolutely amazing. The first stranger I walked up to I said, “Wow, I would sure would be proud to call this place my work home. This is my first time here and the offices are absolutely stunning.” It turns out that person was an attorney there, and my opening line evolved into a great conversation and a meaningful connection that may result in some business for both of us. If that feels daunting to come up with something original, just keep it simple. As in, “How are you?” or “What brings you here?”
4) It’s better to be interested than interesting.
Let’s face it, making meaningful, or even non-meaningful, small talk with strangers doesn’t come naturally to most people. And to be good at it, we must be diligent and deliberate about how we practice it. But even if you don’t possess much think-on-your-feet verbal dexterity, one thing any of us can do is simply ask questions. So when you engage, be present, really listen instead of looking around the room to see if you can find someone better, use their name in the conversation and be inquisitive. Given the opportunity, and the prompting, most people will go on about themselves at some length. And along the way, they are forming an opinion about you that you are smart, and a really good conversationalist, even if what you are doing mostly is listening. And if you are listening, most likely you are learning. Something. So again, if you find it intimidating to be interesting, work instead on being interested.
If you find it intimidating to be interesting, work instead on being interested.
5) Follow up. Promptly.
Many people will recommend exchanging business cards with literally everyone you meet at a networking event. If that is an expectation, then I guess you can go along. But if you meet someone, exchange a few pleasantries, and don’t have a good dialogue for whatever reason, why bother? Why add to that pile of cards collecting dust on your desk? Conversely, if you do meet someone with whom you would like to meet again, follow up promptly, certainly within one business day. When I meet someone like that, I go home, look them up on LinkedIn, and write, “I enjoyed meeting you and making a connection with you tonight. Let’s connect here as well. I look forward to continuing the conversation.” Then you can reach out to them soon after for a coffee chat or lunch.
I know people who flourish at these types of events, and expect to come away with meaningful leads and new connections. I also know lots of other people who only attend these events begrudgingly, and don’t expect to have any meaningful conversations – or connections.
Guess what? Both are self-fulfilling prophecies. You tend to get out of networking events what you put into them. And with a little bit of planning – and practice – I opine you can get a lot more out of them than you probably are at the present.
We’d love to hear from you about your networking tips and best practices and what works for you.