When you have the opportunity to network, do you handle it well, or is it a big, fat fail?
While online networking has dominated in many ways over the past 10-plus years, in-person networking -- conferences, conventions, workshops, trade shows, etc. -- is still a great way to meet and mingle with peers, potential partners and mentors. If you’re new to the networking scene and want to stay at the top of your game, avoid these five mistakes that will make others cringe.
Being overly aggressive. If you walk into an event with the mannerisms of a used car salesman, you will immediately turn off everyone around you. Yes, you want to end up known at the end of the day, but not for being arrogant and annoying.
To avoid this image, ask questions about what other people do rather than making statements about your own business. Take the time to listen to the answers instead of waiting for your turn to talk. With this approach, you will be perceived as interesting and worth talking to by others. And don’t worry, they’ll get around to asking about you soon enough.
Focusing only on the big cheeses. Of course, there are people that everyone in the room wants to talk to -- the speaker at an event, the investor with deep pockets, the extremely successful entrepreneur. But there are likely others worth talking with as well, so don’t follow the herd and rush to the big names in the room.
Instead, circulate and discover people who are interesting, have useful information and are fun. Eventually you will probably get a chance to talk with a big cheese or two, and you never know, that quiet guy in the corner may be a hidden gem.
Trying too hard to impress. Do you feel like small potatoes in the crowd? Many people overcompensate by presenting themselves as more important than they really are. It’s tempting to boost your resume and brag on potential future successes, but chances are people will find out the truth eventually, making you look like an untrustworthy and foolish person.
This may cost you the chance to gain mentors or other benefits. Bottom line: be yourself. You’ll gain more respect and make more real connections.
Staying quiet. It can be overwhelming to be surrounded by other entrepreneurs, some of whom are perhaps farther along than you are. Don’t let that fact keep you from stepping up and talking to people.
If you’ve never attended an event like this before, start slowly. Walk up to someone who’s also standing alone, and make an innocuous comment such as, “quite a crowd here tonight,” or “is this your first time here?” It doesn’t matter what you say. The goal is to start a conversation.
Within a few seconds you’ll know whether the person you approached is interested in talking or not. If not, say some casual wrapup remark and move on. Chances are that there are others in the room who don’t know how to network, and who would appreciate your approach.
A word of caution though: while I mentioned not only going after the big names in the room, it’s also a big mistake to only stick with the wallflowers. You need to muster the courage to get in on other conversations, or you won’t maximize the benefits of networking.
Not being prepared. So far, we haven’t discussed the actual purpose of networking, which is ultimately about helping your business grow. Eventually, someone will ask you what you do or what your business is about. This is your chance to shine. Practice your elevator pitch, have business cards at the ready and be prepared to answer any questions that might come up.
You can show your enthusiasm and go into more detail if the response from your conversation partner is positive. Be sure to reciprocate and ask about their business. The best kind of networking is a true exchange by two or more people who can benefit from sharing information, ideas and resources.
As you engage in more networking activities, your comfort will build and the appropriate behavior will become natural and easy. Then you can gain the best benefit of networking opportunities: the chance to talk to other people who are smart, interesting and excited about the companies they are creating.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of YoungEntrepreneur.com. He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of Kidpreneurs and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley). He's based in Vancouver, B.C.