Small Is Beautiful. How to Make the Most of an Intimate Networking Event: 7 Rules
We all know we should network; it’s no secret that connections are your key to better business opportunities and new partnerships. And, if you're an entrepreneur, the importance of constantly expanding your professional circle cannot be understated. As Kelly Hoey wrote in Build Your Dream Network,“To get things done in this hyperconnected world, you need access to a wide range of people. And you need to be able to tap into this knowledge network regularly."
That's why, in theory, networking events are a wonderful way to meet others who might be relevant as you seek to create more business opportunities.
In reality, however, large networking events and conferences are often disappointing: People stand there, nervously sipping cocktails, hoping to spark an interesting and productive conversation, all the while scheming how to bump into just the “right” contact in a noisy, overcrowded room. In that context, you quickly come to realize that "more" isn’t always better; sometimes it’s just more.
That’s why there’s been a rise, lately, in smaller, more industry-targeted events and communities. A growing number of female-only clubs for instance are hosting intimate networking events. They include The Wing (which is expanding, based on the high demand) and Stiletto Networks.
In these groups, women have started their own power circles, to support the work of other women. In the digital space, marketers frustrated with the void of social media are looking toward micro-communities to find an audience. Even educational companies and coworking spaces, like General Assembly and Galvanize, are offering members-only meetups to better foster connections. And of course, there's my own company, Voray, created specifically to cut through the noise and help people build more authentic relationships.
Why smaller networking groups? The answer is that "small" drives better engagement. In a more private setting (a.k.a., a networking safe space), chances are greater for making a more natural and long-lasting connection -- one that could lead to a business partnership or investment. So, when the stakes are higher, how do you make the most of the situation? Start with these seven rules.
Research the guest list.
Ask the host who will be in attendance and take the time to search for information about each person before the event. This provides helpful information for conversation starters with other guests.
Research can also help you find people with whom you already share some commonalities, and people you should make a point to meet. Don’t shy away from a guest who works at a competing company; in an intimate dinner setting, people tend to open up. Bryn Sanders, VP of customer success at Julius, told me how she met contacts from competing agencies at a small influencer-marketing event and was surprised to witness how much information people from different companies were sharing.
“We could all relate to one another, and in a cozy restaurant setting, we all felt comfortable telling war stories," Sanders said. "It created a sense of camaraderie."
One thing I personally like to do is cross reference who in my network overlaps with people on the guest list so that I have an immediate connection point.
2. Be yourself.
In order to best showcase your strengths, show people the real you. The more you feel at ease, the stronger impression you will leave. This can be unnerving at first, but it leads to real rewards. And, according to the Harvard Business Review, trying to be somebody you’re not can have real consequences:
“Trying to anticipate what will impress the other person both increases your anxiety and makes you feel inauthentic.” Don’t try to be 6-feet tall when you’re not. Dress professionally, but in clothes that are natural to your personal style; raise topics you’re genuinely interested in talking about. If you’re an introvert, listen and interject when you feel comfortable.
I’ve led sales at multiple tech companies, so I’m always excited to talk shop with other high-growth sales leaders. I’ve learned some of my best tips of the trade from networking discussions. I’m also a mom to two young kids, and the working-parent discussion is another one, in my experience, where people tend to feel comfortable warming up just a bit.
3, Don’t just talk shop.
Conversations that mix personal information with professional information are more engaging and memorable. Rich Stromback, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur who is known as "Mr. Davos" for his impressive list of contacts, told HBR: “Nobody wants to have a ‘networking conversation,’ especially those who are at the highest levels of business and politics. They are hungry for real conversations and real relationships. It just has to be authentic, genuine and sincere.”
Talk about something you’re passionate about, whether it’s business-related or a hobby. “I just go with the flow and spend time with who I enjoy,” Stromack said. So, do as he does: Forget about collecting business cards just to have business cards. Contacts without connection don’t go all that far. This is one of the reasons we start each networking event at our company with an ice-breaker question. Sure it’s great to know the name and title of all of our guests. But it’s often more memorable to learn that someone used to be a nationally ranked athlete or a bassoon player.
4. Be a good guest.
Ask questions, listen and be engaged. The more you can show genuine interest in your fellow dinner party guests, the faster you will establish a solid relationship with them and create the reputation of a “good guest.” Your goal should be to continue being invited to networking dinners (and expanding your circle!) and for your name to keep coming up.
Here are some things you should never do: Talk only about yourself, share unprofessional or inappropriate stories, talk negatively about former employers or colleagues and ask potentially insulting or dead-end questions (“So, what do you do?”). Instead, propose questions like “So, what do you like about what you do?” or “What are you reading right now?”
5. Connect with other people.
Another great question to ask is, “Whom can I help you meet?” When you help someone else, you instantly create a feeling of goodwill. Listen for the other person’s challenges so you can figure out who in your network might be a good resource or problem-solver. Sometimes, it might be you.
Executive search experts Beth Haggerty and Caryn Effron told me how they met for the first time at a private, intimate networking dinner where they discussed how they could help each another in their businesses. Organically, the conversation evolved and they quickly found they had common interests, and identified a fantastic business opportunity they could pursue together. Soon after, they co-founded a new company, Parity Partners, an executive search firm exclusively focused on diversity. Nothing gives me more personal satisfaction than knowing I had a hand in helping great people get together.
6. Talk to mentees, not just mentors.
Helping the next generation is not just a benevolent exercise. Mentees can help you and your career just as much as you can help them. Professionals should look for opportunities to advocate for others, as that's a great way to build meaningful relationships and expand your professional network in an authentic way. It can also result in stronger relationships than other networking channels.
Tiffany Dufu, author of Drop the Ball, speaks of the power of mentees helping her, too. When her own mentee’s company was looking for a speaker for its annual conference, the mentee immediately suggested Dufu. It was a win for both of them.
7. Follow up.
The biggest mistake people make, time and time again, is letting the connection go. Like any relationship, you should check in and keep the conversation going,not just when you need something. “Send an email about something you talked about to put yourself back on top of mind,” says Hoey. If someone mentioned kite surfing and you know that the best place to kite surf is Aruba, send that person a link to the spot and say it reminded you of your first conversation.
Or, if you see positive news about a contact's company, send a quick congratulatory note. Then, when it comes time for the big ask, you have already established a personal relationship that doesn’t feel so one-sided.