You’re not alone. Most people are uncomfortable walking into a roomful of strangers. But networking at business events can help you grow your business, as well as allow you to do hands-on marketing research. Learning to mingle and to follow-up with business networking contacts is crucial to your self-employment success. The following techniques will assist you in connecting effectively with others.
Before the Event
Come prepared to network by bringing business cards, a pen and a small notebook. Make sure you eat before you go. If it’s a cocktail party, or finger foods are being served during the networking portion of the meeting, it’s better to carry only a drink, instead of trying to juggle a plate of food.
Know your goals: What is your purpose for attending this particular event? To meet certain people? To find prospective customers? To find a resource you need? Meet a new friend? Nurture existing relationships? Bring 20 business cards and promise yourself you won’t leave until you’ve given out all the cards. Ask for other people’s cards if you sincerely want to keep in touch with them. Not everyone you meet will be a good resource.
Ask the event host about dress code. Some events are Business Formal and people will be wearing business suites. Some events are Business Casual and there will be a mix of more relaxed styles. By knowing in advance what to expect, you maximize the feeling of being part of the group.
At the Event
First, arrive early. Get there early when the group is small and manageable. Enter the room with a smile. Even if you feel nervous, “act as if.” If you have a smile on your face, you will be perceived as approachable, enthusiastic, and friendly. (And you’ll feel a whole lot better, too!) Make sure you mingle. Do not isolate yourself with only your friends or colleagues you know. Move around. Spend no more than 5-6 minutes talking with any one person.
Ask your host to introduce you to people that you want to meet, or to get you started in a group where you know no one. If they have a Greeting Committee or Ambassadors, find out who they are and ask for help with introductions. Reach out to people standing by themselves, introduce people to each other. (As a side note, if you are part of a group or association that does not have a Greeting Committee, offer to become a one-person Greeting Committee. It gives you the perfect excuse to introduce yourself to everyone who walks in the door!)
When you meet a person, shake hands, and repeat their name. This not only helps you remember it, but it shows that you’re making an effort to hear the name properly. Wear a nametag that is easy to read and is descriptive of you. Wear it on your right shoulder so that people can easily see it when they shake your hand. Create, practice and use a description of yourself and your work that can be said in 30 seconds or less. Know how to describe your work in one or two sentences. (This is commonly known as an Elevator Speech because it reflects what you can say in the time it takes to get from the ground floor to the top floor in an elevator.)
Listen more than you talk. Remember that there is nothing more flattering than someone who listens carefully and shows sincere interest in other people. Ask questions and listen to the responses so that you begin to understand the person. This also helps you to identify who might be a potential client for your own products and services. Take notes to help you remember what people have said. When you get back to the office, put all this information into your contact management software.
After The Event
Once you have someone’s business card, make sure you follow up with them within 24 hours of the event. If there’s an obvious win-win connection with someone you’ve met at an event, call them up and invite them to lunch to explore the connection further. When you write the networking event into your calendar, also add one or two hours the following day into your calendar for follow-up so that you know you have time to complete the task.
When you look upon networking events and business functions as an opportunity to meet new people, do some market research, and find potential clients, it can become a joy instead of a chore. Going in with a game plan makes you feel like you can really make the most of the event.