There are dozens of opportunities to meet new people and grow your professional network every day. Still, most people rely on formal networking events to pull out their business cards and start conversations. Instead, take advantage of less obvious opportunities.
A connection can happen in the most unlikely places including while you’re in line for your morning coffee, on an airplane going to your next business meeting, during a break at a seminar, or at a happy hour event.
The first rule of networking is visibility. When I started my business 16 years ago, I joined professional organizations, associations and other groups. But that wasn’t enough. I knew that I had to get involved to get recognized. In other words, you must see and be seen in order for others to know who you are.
Volunteer to serve on the board of a local nonprofit or attend charity fundraising events. Volunteer to give a presentation or guest lecture to hone your public speaking skills. Don’t forget that you are your own best business card.
As you go about your day, keep your eyes and ears open for conversation starters. Look for opportunities to be of service. If a stranger mentions that he is looking for a good restaurant, chime in and introduce yourself and suggest some of your favorite places to eat. Search for things you have in common, especially shared experiences, to start genuinely interesting conversations.
It may seem awkward at first, but the more you practice, the more connections you’ll make. Networks grow exponentially. For every new connection you make, you inherit those secondary connections. After all, it’s much easier to ask for an introduction than it is to cold call someone or introduce yourself out of the blue.
Instead of waiting for an occasion to network, use these tips to start a conversation with a stranger.
Give a firm handshake. First impressions are powerful and a good handshake conveys confidence. Always stand when you shake someone’s hand because it shows respect for yourself and the other person. As you offer your hand, make eye contact, smile, say your first and last name, and something about yourself.
Find a connector. If you’re new at an event, ask someone in charge or someone who knows a lot of people to introduce you to others in their network. An introduction from an insider can be more effective than if you introduce yourself to a group of strangers.
Discover a person’s hobbies and interests. You could say something like, “What activities do you like to do in your spare time?” No one likes to talk about work all night, so your new acquaintance will appreciate your genuine interest. It’s always nice when someone takes the time to get to know who you are, not just what you do.
Give a sincere compliment. This can be a great way to initiate small talk. Everyone loves a compliment. When someone has won an award or done something noteworthy at work, compliment her on her business accomplishments. Accessories are safe conversation starters. Mention you like a person’s laptop case, pin, tie or handbag.
Know a little about a lot of things. Stay up-to-date on current affairs. If you are interested and interesting, people will be drawn to you. When you travel on business, grab a local paper as soon as you arrive at the airport or hotel. Familiarize yourself with local news and you’ll always have something to talk about. Stay away from taboo topics including sex, money, off-color jokes and politics.
Keep in touch. After you meet new connections, be sure to follow-up. Always exchange business cards so you can connect on LinkedIn afterwards. Send an email or a handwritten note to let the person know you enjoyed meeting him. If you come across a business opportunity or a news article that you think your new acquaintance might be interested in, let him know. When you stay in touch, relationships will naturally grow.