Networking events are like speed dating for entrepreneurs: run by business and entrepreneurial networks most conversations are painfully awkward, everyone spends too much time talking about themselves, and your new ‘contacts’ rarely, if ever, call afterwards.
Despite what you may believe, not many people are born with a natural ability to work a room. Just like anything in business, effective networking takes a lot of trial and error before getting it right, and you are never really done learning. That being said, there’s a lot that you can do to stack the deck in your favour. Here’s our list of six simple networking tips to help you break the ice.
1. Prepare or die
Most people show up to industry events without a clear goal in mind or knowing how they should act. The result? They either feel too uncomfortable to talk to anyone or end up mindlessly rambling until the other person (inevitably) excuses himself to the bathroom.
Starting a conversation with a complete stranger is difficult enough without your corporate future potentially on the line. It’s a naturally high-stress environment. The last thing you should do is try to think of a perfect thing to say each time you approach a new person.
Instead, draft a couple of simple conversation starters ahead of time. Whether it’s a whimsical work story or a question about tonight’s keynote speaker, going in with a plan helps relieve the unnecessary pressure and gives you one less thing to worry about.
The same concept applies to finishing conversations as well. Try and identify the main goal of any interaction before jumping into it. Are you fishing for a referral, or would you just like to exchange business cards? Whatever it is, knowing where you’re headed will help you effortlessly close the discussion. Leaving it up to chance is the best way to guarantee a graceless exit.
2. Be a good Samaritan
Being selfless hardly goes along with the traditional notion of networking. After all, we’re often taught to treat our business connections as little more than a convenient gateway to personal or professional gain. And while nobody suggests neglecting your own interests, there’s a good reason why catering to the needs of others might be the best business decision you can make.
If you’re trying to build long-lasting rapport with people in your niche, nothing beats unsolicited generosity. Nobody enjoys feeling like somebody’s means to an end. Adding real value to a person you just met shows that you genuinely care about building relationships, rather than just adding names to your company Rolodex.
Instead of advertising yourself, focus on helping your new connection grow his own business. Know a friend that could use his services? Get the two of them in touch! Read a great article on something you discussed? Make sure you send him the link and say why he’ll find it useful.
Empathy trumps selling. Make a genuine effort and use your own resources to help others. They’ll be more than happy to return the favour when the time comes.
3. Don’t be a corporate robot
For obvious reasons, plenty of people treat networking events as open-house job interviews. And while there’s nothing wrong with discussing your specific line of work, you’re hardly going to leave a lasting impression by reciting your competitive skillset.
Plot twist: the easiest way to build trust at a business gathering is by getting personal. At the end of the day, people like working with people they like. Keep the conversation fun, engaging, and focus on making friends first, and associates second.
If the discussion does shift to your product or service, avoid giving a refined elevator pitch. Instead, be a storyteller. Talk about why you love what you do, and why it’s more of an obsession than an occupation.
If you’ve only come to an event to promote yourself, you might as well promote your real self. Entrepreneurs hate pretences as much as anyone else. You don’t have to be BFFs with everyone in the room, but keeping it authentic is how deals are made.
4. Break the 3-day rule
According to every ‘90s rom-com ever made, under no circumstances should you call up your romantic interest at least 72 hours after the first date. No disrespect to Freddie Prince Jr., but the exact opposite should be applied to your new business connections.
Networking is supposed to be the beginning, not the end of a conversation. Unfortunately, most people seem to be content with hoarding business cards, rather than effectively following up on the discussions they’ve had.
But why so soon? Well, according to the forgetting curve, we are much more likely to dismiss the information we don’t engage with repeatedly. In fact, when we wait two days before reviewing information, we forget about 60% of what was actually said (sorry Freddie).
Science aside, following up shortly after meeting someone makes perfect business sense. It reasserts your commitment and proves you’re looking to establish real relationships.
Make sure to ask the person about the best way to stay in touch (email, LinkedIn or phone). Next, check in after 48 hours to say how much you enjoyed meeting them, and discuss getting together again in the future. If you don’t follow up, you don’t get the girl!
5. Invest your time
A few years back, when I decided that my chosen career path was start-up marketing, a very kind friend threw a slew of start-up groups at me and requested that I ‘go check them out’. I must have gone to about 10 to 15 events over a six month period with business cards in hand and an elevator pitch at the ready. So, I hear you ask, how much business did you generate? The answer is a lot, but not instantly. The golden nugget was when one person responded to a follow-up call, and the rest is history.
The phrase ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find a prince’ applies to anyone that takes networking seriously, but you have to invest the time to make it happen. If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can’t win the jackpot, but with networking, even the potluck isn’t enough, you also have to do your homework. With Eventbrite, your job is very easy, and with LinkedIn, it gets easier still. But it takes time and effort. Sorry, no shortcuts in this game. You have to do what you say you will, follow up with every card, call every person until things reach their natural conclusion. You will develop a sense of whether people you have met are, to put it bluntly, time wasters or worth investing in.
6. Locating your target audience
One further point to consider is, do you pay to attend the event? It depends as, let’s face it, quality costs, and in some cases, it is really, really worth it if you know who you want to speak to and the time and effort to get their attention otherwise could be a lot greater than paying the entrance price for a drinks reception.
There are lots of different ways to build your business, and for some, the face-to-face meet and greet comes naturally and if done in the right way it can generate huge rewards. For others, the prospect of speed networking is as attractive as root canal treatment without the injection. I get it. You need to work out exactly what you need and how and where to get it, simple! So, I look forward to seeing you at the next meetup with your business cards and elevator pitch at the ready!