For some, it’s an exciting word – one that represents a chance to make new connections and further one’s personal brand. For others, it can be a bit stressful.
The word? Networking.
Even in the age of social media, instant messaging and connections that can be made via a huge number of means, networking in person remains a brilliant way to meet new people and further one’s horizons.
However, it requires a fair degree of confidence if you’re to approach such an event without it simply becoming nothing more than an uneventful day out of the office where you spend most of your time trying to find the quietest corner in which to get some emails answered.
If you’re not the outgoing sort and networking events fill you with dread, we’ve got seven tips that will help you make the most of such gatherings.
1. Do some homework
This might sound like the last thing you want to do in the lead up to a networking event, but if you conduct even a small amount of research, you’ll be able to draw the utmost value from the day itself.
Most events of this kind will have an attendee list, and if that’s the case, it makes sense to scour it for people and businesses you recognise. Make a note of the people who will be worth talking to and if you haven’t already, connect with them on LinkedIn (if for no other reason than to ensure you know what they look like!).
Think about what you want to get from the event. What do you want to learn? What sort of people do you want to meet? Talk to people and attend the talks (if they’re part of the day) that are most likely to help you achieve your networking goal.
2. Make a mark
There’s no getting away from it – if you’re not the outgoing sort, you’re going to have to put on a bit of a performance when networking.
That doesn’t mean swanning in singing your best show tune (we wouldn’t put anyone through that) – more nailing that all-important introduction and first handshake.
You know who you are, who you work for and your job role, so practice what you’ll first say to people. Keep it casual, polite and end it with a question for them. Who do they work for? Why have they attended the event? What are they hoping to get out of it?
Just remember: conversations at networking events should be relaxed and natural, so while planning makes sense, don’t write yourself a script.
3. Distinguish yourself from the crowd
Chances are, there’ll be plenty of people like you there. Firstly, that’s a relief – you won’t be alone in feeling nervous about it, but, secondly, it’ll threaten your ability to make a mark.
That’s why you need to distinguish yourself from the crowd and competition. You want people to remember you, and that’s a tough task when the room is swimming with other human beings. Think about how you can stand out from the crowd by demonstrating that you’ve left the office for a far more guided purpose than just a day away from the boss.
4. Don’t forget your business cards
But… we’ve got LinkedIn, you’re thinking. Well, yes – but that isn’t of much use at a networking event. “Connect with me on LinkedIn” is a phrase that will quickly be forgotten, whereas a handful of business cards collected throughout the day should make their way back to the office.
It’s surprising how many people in the modern age pat their trousers when asked for a business card before muttering “oh, I’ve just run out, I’m afraid”. Don’t be that person – make sure you have plenty of business cards printed and ready to go come the big day.
5. Decide how you can provide value
Once you strike up a conversation with someone, you’ll need to start providing some value once the niceties are over and done with.
Just as you’re looking to get something out of them (providing you’ve done your homework – see tip 1), they’ll want the same out of you. Conversations that spend more time on the weather than they do on hard-and-fast business matters won’t do anyone any favours.
Great business relationships can only thrive if they’re reciprocal. Your business will offer value in one way or another, so pick out the two or three key unique selling points (USPs) it relies on and extol their benefits whenever you get into the meat of the conversation with someone at a networking event.
It’s important to remember that networking is a function of business, so no matter how ‘salesy’ it might feel to hammer on about features and benefits, it’s a vital part of being there if you’re to get the most out of the day. In fact, people expect it, so don’t be shy.
6. Make a beeline for speakers
Most networking events will feature speakers of some kind. During your planning phase, make sure you suss out which speakers will provide the most value to you by focusing on the topics that are relevant to your job role or overarching goal.
It’s important to remember that speakers are there to network, too. For them, it’s a straight-up sales task; they want to further their personal brand and get a specific message out to as many people as possible.
When the person on stage is done speaking, you’ll spot that several attendees will make a beeline for them. You should be among those people, even if it feels like you’re approaching a rockstar.
Deal with the conversation in the exact same way as every other conversation you’ve undertaken that day. Be polite, thank them for a brilliant, insightful speech and ask two or three questions – they’ll thank you for it and will most likely love indulging further in their chosen topic.
If you can, grab their contact details, too. Those who are brave enough to stand on stage and speak to a room full of people could become very useful allies in the future.
Phew – that’s it out of the way!
Not quite. When you arrive back at the office following a networking event, the task continues. You’ll hopefully have returned with a bunch of business cards, notes and ideas, and it’s time to put them all to work.
Sift through those cards. The people who made their mark on you will jump out straight away. Make another beeline for them by connecting on LinkedIn and emailing to say how much you enjoyed their company. It might sound corny, but making the effort in this way will demonstrate that you mean business.
Schedule follow up meetings and phone calls with the people who will provide most value for your business and to whom you can provide equal value.
Look through your notes. If time allows, write up a blog post for the company about your experience of the event. Start putting into practice the things you’ve learned or pitch them to the stakeholders.
The real value from networking comes long after you’ve spent time in that big room full of people.
You never know who you might meet at a networking event or the business opportunities you may stumble across. And, if you follow our tips above, you’ll always feel capable of putting your best foot forward and showing the other attendees what you’re made of.