I haven’t yet done a Networking 101 – perhaps another day (I don’t feel like writing that long of an article right now, it’s a huge topic). Additionally, I got my first personal request for a topic, so why not start with event networking! So, let’s begin our treatise on Networking 102: The Event.
I have no doubt that at sometime during your personal or professional life, you will be sent/invited to or required at an event. Be it a conference, seminar, product launch, convention or intimate alumni networking – it doesn’t matter, the rules hold true – you need to know how to introduce yourself, spark a conversation, and meet one or two people.
A great athlete can’t perform if they don’t have the basic equipment or setup, so let’s start with that.
- Cards – do you have a business card? Does your company give you one? If not, ask. It never hurts to ask for cards (unless you’re a lowly co-op) and be honest. Approach your manager and say “listen, I am going to be attending industry events, and I thought it would help present a professional image for both myself and the firm if I could get some business cards to exchange.” 99% of managers will say yes, and bonus: you have just shown some great initiative – now your manager knows you are actively engaging the industry. Not working quite yet? Go to http://www.vistaprint.com, get some of their mid-range cards. Get a conservative yet interesting design – and you’re good to go. Point of clarification here: don’t cheap out on cards. The next day, when the person is going through the cards they received, you don’t want to be the flimsy paper with the text peeling off. What does that say about your professional standards?
- Organize Yourself – there are a couple rules of thumb for a networking environment (whatever the actual event is – they all hold true). First, never hold your drink in your right hand. It not only limits your ability to shake hands (as you awkwardly shuffle your drink to the other hand), but it also gives you a wet, clammy, cold hand from holding the drink. Secondly, always put your name tag over your lungs (i.e. your right side). This is so that when you shake hands with someone, you tend to lean in, thus drawing a line from your arm up to you name tag (if you put it on the heart side – left – it tends to be awkward as your try to point to your name tag while shaking hands). Three, shake hands like you mean it. I don’t care if you’re a girl shaking a guy’s hand, guy shaking a girl’s hand – whatever – shake with some authority. There is nothing worse than a limp handshake.
- Dress – better over dressed then under dressed. If there is a keynote speaker, dress to their level. Done.
Okay, so now you have the groundwork laid – let’s go to the actual interaction.
Breaking the Ice
First things first, make sure you are approachable. This means don’t lean against the wall, don’t cross your arm’s, and don’t have ‘not interested’ written across your face. Be aware of what your body language is saying. Honey tends to attract bee’s better than vinegar.
Let’s say though that for whatever reason, no one wants to talk to you (happens to me all the time). That puts you on the offensive – you need to initiate contact. The key to making a connection with someone you don’t know is searching for a point of common interest, something the two (or three, four, etc.) share in common. Right off the bat you have one – you are all at the same event. This might transpire in your initiating something in the form of “what brings you to the event?”, “this is my first time at one of these, how about you?”, or “I didn’t get any of the cool-aid, can I get some of yours?” Talk about the event itself – who is speaking, what’s the group, how long have you/they been part of the group, how often have you come before, etc. Just get the conversation going, you are going to last in this stage for long (also, it’s boring).
Ask Open-Ended Questions
The key to creating conversation is asking open-ended questions – those that can’t be answered in one word. The ultimate key to creating conversation is getting people to answer open-ended questions about themselves. There is nothing sweeter to the ears then our own voice. However, your goal is not to be the one talking – your goal is to facilitate the conversation by prodding it along. The key, as we said before, is to focus on areas of common interest. These could include:
- Kids (even if you don’t have any – people love to talk about their children)
- Work (if you really must)
- News (read: not politics)
- Interesting thoughts
- Food (favourite restaurant is always popular)
I am sure you can figure out more, but those are some basics. Figure out what you all enjoy. Has everyone eaten at the same place, but you know a better one? Everyone a hockey fan? Whatever – figure out what you share in common and work from there.
Listen: Ask Smart Follow-Up Questions
The best way to keep a conversation is to be a better listener then speaker. The social magnets at professional events are usual not the loudest – they don’t have the most to say. Instead, they listen closely to what others around them are talking about, and ask genuine, smart, and personal follow up questions. Someone says they recently climbed Kilimanjaro: ask them about their worries or concerns before, how did they prepare, why did they do it? Asking these questions not only keeps the conversation going, but may give you clues to other areas of interest (for instance, they did it with an organization that you are also a part of).
Be an Introducer
The most valuable people to talk to at any group event is an introducer – someone who seemingly knows half the room, and after talking, brings you over to someone else you may be interested in meeting. You can do the same thing. If you are talking to someone interested in working in Capital Markets, and your friend, who is also present, happens to work on an equity desk – go over and introduce them. You have just created a connection for someone else, and have become an introducer. You might not think it – but those people you do end up introducing will always remember your contribution, and be happy to repay the favour.
Quality or Quantity?
The old wisdom goes that you should spend no more than five minutes with someone at any kind of professional event, in order to maximize your visibility and exposure. I disagree with that – if you can have a solid 5-10 minute conversation with one or two people, then do it. Get their cards after too – because you are in the process of forming a professional relationship that you will want to keep growing.
Great Tip: a great thing to do after talking to someone and getting their card is to jot down any personal information on the back of it (which is usually blank). Kids names, interests, talking points, etc. This way when you next reach for the card, you have a quick refresher.
Stay in Touch
The final step after meeting someone at an event is to stay in touch. This doesn’t have to be more than once every few months, and it might just be getting a coffee or sharing a quick email – think up an excuse to reach out. I had an old boss that would write everyone’s birthday on the back of their card, and then send them a personal note on the big day – you can’t imagine how appreciative people were of that small act of kindness. The best way to stay in touch with people is to add value. Come across an interesting article? Send it. Find a business lead? Send it. Add value in whatever way you can, and people will never forget you.
That concludes Networking 102: The Event.