Written by Sharon Lee
Networking events and opportunities tend to elicit groans and mixed feelings of dread (of attending), a heavy burden (because you really should go but you really don't want to go) and guilt (if I don't go what does that say about me, what will others who expect me to go think about me, and should I go because it's good for me?). I wholeheartedly fall into all of these categories even though I'm an extrovert who enjoys a good chat session. There are, of course, the power networkers who have narrowed down the skill of networking to a science. I have a colleague who would send out pre-event emails to all his guests with logistics - which doors the food will be coming out from, where the bar is, where the bathrooms are and people to look out for. As a side bar, he would give me a bit of information on who I should try to meet and what topics were "trending". Now that's organization. But for those events that don't come with an itinerary and a personal guide, here are some simple and key tips to keep in mind to make your next networking opportunity less awkward, and how to come out like gang busters.
1. Identify your networking objective (and it's not to sell yourself). Networking becomes easier once you know why you're doing it. For me, the value of networking comes from hearing people's stories about their experiences and I thrive on the bits of wisdom and advice that spill out in between the lines of those stories. What if you attended your next meeting or event with the mindset of, "what do I want to hear from people" or "what do I want to learn", instead of "what will I say to people"? If you're focused on only what you're going to say and how you'll come off, you may find yourself rambling on about yourself and missing out on an opportunity to learn from others. Instead, incorporate your own story into the conversation so as to make it a part of the discussion instead of being the topic of discussion. Think of networking as a way to build your portfolio of knowledge and insight to open the channels to opportunity. Walking into a room with this perspective gives me a lot of confidence in meeting new people, because I know why I'm there and I know what I want, and what I want is not just about me but it's about the other person too. Everyone wins!
2. Give before you receive. If possible, I like to find ways to give people some useful information to take away from our meeting. Sometimes it's a book recommendation or an article that relates to our discussion. Sometimes it's a new website that I found to be interesting, or some advice that I received and found to be helpful. And sometimes it's a person. One of the things I love to do is to connect people with other people that I think can be of some benefit to them and their journey. Of course, you have to facilitate the introductions and sometimes it gets awkward, but if you're serious about the connection you'll find a way to get past the crickets. An email introduction is usually the best since people are much more forthcoming and helpful when they aren't pressured to meet someone face to face. When you give someone something of value, they'll eventually return the favor in one form or another.
3. Feelings are important. Maya Angelou famously said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you feel that there is nothing else to contribute (or you want to keep contributing) remember to leave people feeling good about meeting you. I love to leave people with either a compliment, an acknowledgement, or an appreciation of the conversation, and I appreciate it when people do the same for me. I'm not talking about gassing someone up for no reason and I'm not talking about brown nosing. But someone took the time to have a conversation with you and you with them. There is always something to be thankful for and there is never any harm in thanking that person out loud. People remember things when they are attached to an emotion.
4. Peek interest and be engaging. "If you want to be interesting you have to be interested." I'm pretty sure that quote has been tossed around a lot and I no longer know who the real author is. Regardless, it's 100% correct. If you want people to find you interesting, you have to be interested in them as well. A way to accomplish this is by staying engaged during the entire conversation. Sure you may break to wave hi at someone you know, but come back to the conversation, ask questions and relate their story back to your own experience. I can't tell you how easy it is to spot someone who is just talking for the sake of talking, someone who is really nervous and is only talking about themselves, or someone who is not listening. Giving people your attention is another great way to make someone feel important (see point 3).
5. The follow-up. I hate the follow-up. Sometimes it feels like the day after a night at the club where you were deep in the elements - music blaring, fun and lighthearted conversation, and then...the real world hits the next day and it's like...oh, now I have to email you a professional email. But if you've met someone who you connected with a short email goes a long way and is a great step towards bringing someone into your actual network. Keep it clean, short and professional. And I should have mentioned this before, but make sure to always bring business cards! Remember to keep the cards you receive and the cards you give, separate. That way you don't accidentally give someone someone else's card (I've done this! more than once...).
There's a lot to write about networking. The power of making a connection, the questions you could ask to keep engaged, the psychology behind networking, how to build relationships from a networking event, etc., but these are my simple tips on how to make networking a worthwhile event instead of an awkward one. You never know what opportunities may come from conversations with strangers (and you'll start to see how small the world really is!).