Not everyone loves bobbing in and out of a strange crowd with a bundle of business cards in one hand and a plate of cheese in the other. Approaching people you don’t know while trying to build connections can be awkward. Nevertheless, the fact remains: a face-to-face connection can help you to build professional relationships and, in minutes, jumpstart the career you’ve always wanted.
Whether you’re looking for a partner, a client or an employer, networking events can make a real difference. Not only can it help you grow professionally, it can also do good for your personal life.
However, as the saying goes, it only takes a second to make a bad first impression. Before you go out to one of the many networking opportunities available to you throughout the year, it’s important that you hone your approach. Here’s how:
1. Get there early.
You know that saying about being fashionably late? That may apply to house parties and bar excursions, but little else. If your biggest fear is getting stuck in a corner with your plastic cup and a business card while everyone else chats away, be an early bird.
Ditch any notions you have about being a cool kid and get there before the party starts. Networking events can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re going alone. You’re more likely to avoid getting lost in the crowd if you jump in while the group is small, and meet new people as they arrive, one at a time or in pairs.
2. Wear your conversation starter.
First impressions are everything. In just a quick glance a person can make an opinion about who you are based on your appearance and how you carry yourself. While a well put together look is key, consider heading into your networking event with a piece that will help you stand out.
Avoid drowning in a sea of black and navy blue outfits by adding a pair of fun shoes or unique earnings. Make sure you appropriately express your individuality within the context of your situation. If there’s a dress code or dress expectation, make sure you follow the rules accordingly. You definitely don’t want to leave an impression that you’re gaudy or unprofessional, but remember, this is supposed to be fun!
3. Don’t get sucked in by negativity.
Negative Nancies always have time to show up at a networking event. They’ll rag on anything from the economy and job market to your business and career prospects. While you should do your best to dodge these people as much as possible, know that running into them will happen.
Never feel pressured to engage with a negative person, especially at a networking event. Instead, do your best to turn the conversation around with constructive comments. If the person shows no sign of changing their attitude, politely move on. This may sound weird, but kids are the best networkers out there. Not only are they extremely upbeat when making new friends, but they also are unafraid and excited when they approach their peers. If our kids can do it, so can we.
Similarly, don’t go and be the one whose name tag reads, “I’m Nancy Too.” Be sure to hold positive conversations only. If you’re feeling down about work, consider this a prime opportunity to find new positions. Shift your lament onto hopes for a new position and the amazing skills that you have to offer.
4. Research, research, research.
Tactical networking practices work best when you’ve come prepared. Remember, networking events won’t go on all day. You’ll have a small window to make an impression on a large group, so help yourself out by doing research ahead of time.
Start by knowing who is hosting the event. They’ll likely have a limited amount of time to talk but remember they’re the ones who brought in all of the people you’re networking with. At the very least you’ll want to introduce yourself.
Your biggest priority should be having an understanding of the guest list. Typically, events will post the guest list online ahead of the function. Use the list as a way to make note of the people you will definitely want to make connections with. If your host has a team, reach out to co-hosts or assistants to help make introductions with guests beforehand.
Lastly, don’t forget to utilize social media. Learn to recognize the faces of those who you’re most interested in talking to, and make sure to target them first before you get lost investigating where everyone is getting the chocolate samples.
5. Pretend your business card is money.
You might have an unlimited amount of business cards, but there’s no way you have as much brain storage. Before you go and make your business cards rain on your networking event, consider that successful networking requires genuine connections. You wouldn’t go to Target and throw your money at every item you could buy. Don’t do that at an event. Don’t be Blackjack Betty.
Instead, take some time to evaluate where your card is going. Use the event to make real exchanges with others -- listen as much as you speak (ideally more) and really listen. Understanding a person’s passions will help you to build the relationships you came for. Aim to offer your card to people you’ve spent time talking with, whose passions you understand and whose goals align with your own, and vice versa. You’re more likely to have a successful follow-up with them later.