You step into a room of well-dressed people and everyone is busily chatting with a colleague. You've come armed with a stack of business cards and a little apprehension about this crowd full of strangers. What do you do? Where do you start? How do you break the ice when you don't know a soul?
I remember my first networking event like it was yesterday. The all over flop sweat, feeling like my lunch was going to come back up and the pleasant sensation of cotton mouth. With that vivid memory in mind, here are a few of my tips, in no particular order, to help you overcome the trepidation and hopefully make some connections that will lead to relationships and increased sales down the road.
1. Scan the room. I know it seems simple, but you might just see a familiar face in the crowd. That's how I overcame my first event: I saw someone I recognized and made a beeline for her (poor girl!). I couldn't even remember her name but I figured that "You look so familiar. Have we worked together?" might get the conversation started, and it did. We discovered how we knew each other, and it turns out she was nervous too, so we formed a team to make approaching other people easier. If you don't know anyone - which happened to me at my second networking event - introduce yourself to the first person whom you see standing alone, looking overwhelmed. They will be happy for the company and you can bond over your shared discomfort.
2. Practice your intro. So you're supposed to have this 30-60 second "elevator pitch" all thought out to introduce yourself and let others know what you do. I use this only if it feels natural, but sometimes it can come off too sales-y. Face it, you're not going to arrive home from this event to ten emails from people wanting to immediately give you money for your product or services. The purpose of networking is to build relationships and the way you do that is by building rapport. Introduce yourself, then try to find some common ground. Ask questions, comment on the venue or speaker - anything that isn't about you. When it is your turn to speak, share a story or anecdote that relates to the conversation. Avoid plunging right into why someone should hire you or delivering a sales pitch for your products. People like to work with those they know and like. Work on creating that first.
3. Dress appropriately. I have to say, this is a big pet peeve of mine. Jeans or tennis shoes are not business attire, and ladies: leave the sexy dress for the club. You want people to feel comfortable in your presence, so make sure you research the event, venue and group ahead of time to gauge the atmosphere. Networking with CEO's? Definitely a suit. Room full of IT guys? Polo and khakis. Happy hour at a bar? Business casual is probably fine. You don't want to only be remembered as the guy who wore too much cologne, the woman with 40 jingly bracelets or the weird dude in shorts. (Yes, I'm thinking of specific people here. Notice I left out their names.)
4. Keep it short and sweet. The goal at networking events is to meet several different people. It may feel comfortable to stand in the corner with the few colleagues you already know, but try to work the room a bit. You don’t need to introduce yourself to everyone there; however, you should try to have 3-5 meaningful conversations with individuals or groups. Don’t forget to exchange business cards and don’t be afraid to move onto the next conversation after a few minutes. It’s not rude; it’s why you’re all there.
5. Follow up. You’ve met all these wonderful people (and hopefully gotten their business cards) - now, let’s really solidify the relationship by reaching out after the event. If you only had a brief conversation, maybe a “nice to have met you” email will suffice, along with a promise to see them at the next event. If you really connected, maybe a coffee or lunch one-on-one would be more appropriate as a follow-up. The best way to see if your businesses are a good fit is to get to know one another better.
Hopefully these tips will help you at the next event and have you on your way to networking with ease. A final note: once you feel comfortable interacting at networking functions, be sure to keep an eye out for other first timers and introduce them around. It’s the best feeling: showing them the ropes and knowing you once were in their shoes.