I’m one of those rare people who genuinely enjoys professional networking. I cherish the panel discussions, the casual meetups, the conferences, I love them all. But it wasn’t always like this. I was shy early on in my career, and I dreaded introducing myself to strangers. But over time, I developed a new mindset the made networking easier, and more effective. I decided to approach networking as a way to learn about others, instead of a way to advertise myself.
Before you can succeed in professional networking, you need to make that mindset shift. Yes, it’s helpful to be able to talk about your own career. But don’t force it. Approach the event with curiosity, and you’ll be able to connect with others in a meaningful way. And that in turn with make attending networking events worthwhile, because they will actually help you build a robust, authentic professional network.
Now that I’ve convinced you to stop worrying and love the networking event, I want to share some practical, tactical things you can do at your next event to facilitate those meaningful conversations.
Before you show up to your next networking event, take a few minutes to do some prep. Find out about the organization putting on the event, look up the speaker on LinkedIn, and scope out the guest list if it’s public. Learn a few interesting facts, and you’ll have fodder to speak to new people when you arrive.
The second part of prep is thinking about what you might want to talk about. Remember, this isn’t all about you. But you do want to be able to tell your professional story succinctly when people ask. And, if you have a particular goal – say you’re on the job hunt or you want to meet people who work for a specific company – be prepared to mention that, and make an ask when you have an opening.
Some people dislike the term elevator pitch, but it’s just shorthand for having your career story editing down to a concise few sentences, and then being able to deliver it in conversation. Start with these tips to craft your elevator pitch!
Master the nametag
The great thing about most networking events is that name tags are provided, so you can spend your mental energy on conversations instead of memorizing anagrams of your new friend’s first name. Do your part to be memorable by wearing your name tag the right way.
First, make sure you write your name clearly, and make it big. If people have to squint to read it, they won’t bother.
Second, it’s been decided: the correct name tag placement is on the right side. Since we shake with our right hands, placing your nametag on the right puts your name front and center, helping people read it when they meet you.
Finally, play along with any facilitated categories or questions for your name tag. If the organizer put out colored dot stickers for people in different job titles, pick out your dot and display it proudly. If they asked a question that you’re supposed to answer on your name tag, write down your answer! These are key opportunities that encourage new people to approach you, and they give you openings to approach others in turn. We’re all here to mix and meet, so go for it!
Skip the small talk and make networking conversations interesting
If you’ve done some prep, you’re ready to start interesting conversations at your next networking event. Hopefully your prep work revealed some burning questions about the topic at hand. Crowd source the answer with the people you meet! As I said before, approach the event with real curiosity. People are drawn to that.
Another way to start a great conversation is to have a go-to opening line. Try out open-ended questions that generate a more thoughtful response (no yes-or-no questions here). And don’t be afraid to ask questions that aren’t specifically work-related. Your goal is to connect, to find something in common. The professional connection will grow from there. Check out these great conversation starters for ideas.
Bonus tactics: come early and stand by the food!
If you’re overwhelmed by all these tactics, it’s OK. Try them out one at a time. Or try one of my simplest tactics:
Show up on time to the networking portion of your next event. If it starts at 5:30, show up at 5:35 and talk to the organizer. It’s also easy to pick a person to chat with when you’re staring at the one other early bird at the party.
This might be my favorite networking tactic of all: just stand by the food! Now, you shouldn’t hover over the buffet line or devour all the cheese. Just linger a bit while you’re getting your snack. Conversations happen more naturally when food is involved, and you’ll have a few interactions with folks around the hummus plate that will make it easier to approach them afterward.
Contributed by: Mac Prichard, President, Prichard Communications and Mac’s List