Taking an active approach to meeting people can turn any event into a productive networking opportunity. It’s also a chance to influence how others perceive you, says Susan RoAne, a San Francisco-based speaker and the author of How to Work a Room (William Morrow, 2013). Never forget that other people are listening to and observing you at all times, she says.
Here are six steps to take before, during and after a networking event to ensure you get the most out of your interactions:
1. Assess the event. Be selective about the events you attend because “you could go to a networking event every night,” says Dale Kramer Cohen, co-founder of IvyLife, an Ivy League business networking community based in New York. Choose events based on who will be there and the type of contacts you can make. If possible, obtain the list of people attending beforehand. If you can’t get the list, ask the person who invited you or recommended that you go who might be there, Kramer Cohen advises.
2. Have something to say. Read the news and think ahead about topics that will make for interesting small talk, says RoAne. And yes, you’re going to have to engage in small talk, at least initially. “The only people who demonize small talk are the ones who can’t carry a conversation,” she points out.
3. Summarize yourself. Know how you'll introduce yourself in 10 seconds or less, RoAne explains. But don’t just give your title, describe what you do, she says. “Give people context about why you’re there,” she says.
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4. Scope out the room. While at the event, note where the bar and hors d’oeuvres are located, RoAne says. These are great places to strike up a conversation with a person who isn’t already talking to someone, she notes. Also, scan the crowd to see if you know anyone. If you don’t see any familiar faces, start off approaching people who are standing alone, says RoAne. Not only is it an easy way to engage someone, it’s a considerate, welcoming gesture that will be remembered, she adds.
Ben Dattner, the principal of executive coaching and organizational development firm Dattner Consulting in New York suggests talking to a mix of people in terms of age and gender. Don’t just hunt down the most senior, well-connected person in the room; be open to talking with everyone. “The bartender could be your best connection,” Dattner points out.
5. Keep moving. If you’re at the event for an hour, try to talk to at least three people, advises Kramer Cohen. Ask open-ended questions to get the conversation started, but don’t talk with anyone for too long, she says. Gracefully exit a conversation by extending your hand, saying you enjoyed talking, and offer your business card. Then move on to another person or group, says Kramer Cohen.
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6. Follow up promptly. “This is where you get the value—showing up isn’t enough,” Kramer Cohen notes. Prioritize with whom you want to follow up and don’t wait too long, she advises. Be sure to email or connect with the people you met at the event on Linkedin within a few days, she says. Jot down detailed notes about your new contacts so you can find ways to be helpful, like offering to introduce them to valuable connections, says Dattner. But you can also stay on your contacts’ radar by simply keeping in touch. For example, if you know a contact will be making an important presentation, send a note wishing him or her good luck or to ask how the presentation turned out, he suggests. Apps such as Contactually can even help you schedule reminders to touch base every few months to keep bonds strong.