Events of almost any kind provide great opportunities to “get out there” and increase your professional visibility and enable your personal brand to come to life. Whether it’s a conference, networking event, seminar, benefit or party, these gatherings provide an environment ripe for meeting others, expanding your network, building new relationships and strengthening existing ones.
However, for many — regardless of professional success, job status or even how extroverted (or introverted) they consider themselves to be — meeting people isn’t easy. Walking into a room where you don’t know anyone or know only a few can be particularly challenging.
If you find yourself questioning why you’re at an event (and wishing you were anywhere else but there), change your mindset: simply aim to have a few good conversations. Forget about the word “networking,” which, for some, has a negative connotation (synonymous with high stakes pressure to find that next job, client or lead source). Instead, focus on the opportunity to meet like-minded professionals and other interesting people.
Laying the groundwork for building professional relationships is vital because it’s quite likely that your next job, board role, business opportunity or new client will result from connections you’ve made, directly or indirectly. The key is to adopt the right strategic approach. It’s not about attending every event out there or adding as many new LinkedIn connections as possible. Seek out quality engagement over quantity.
And remember, how you interact reflects your personal brand, so be mindful of your actions, conversation, body language and behavior — like putting that phone away, which should be obvious, yet too many people still keep it front and center to mask insecurities!
The following tips should make conversations a little easier and more effective:
Before an event, check out the organizers, speakers, sponsors, attendees, honorees, charity purpose/mission, venue etc. – all of which can help you engage in relevant conversation. In contrast, walking into an event cold can immediately put you at a disadvantage (not to mention, increase nervousness). Practice how you introduce yourself.
Don’t wait until you arrive somewhere to think about the best way to introduce yourself, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve attended a business-related event. Practicing out loud beforehand increases confidence, reduces anxiety and helps make a better first impression.
However, be wary of sounding overly rehearsed by memorizing a few canned lines. Know how to introduce yourself beyond your title and company name. Be ready with some key points about your expertise and background so you can tweak what you say, depending on whom you’re speaking with and the length of conversation.
Bring plenty of business cards.
Seems obvious, but we regularly meet people who say, “I didn’t bring enough!” Or, “Would you believe I forgot them?” Or, “I’m in transition, so I don’t have any…” (in which case, get some personal cards made!) So you don’t forget your cards, put a reminder in your calendar or write yourself a note. At the event, make sure to keep your business cards in an easily accessible place so you’re not scrambling to find one when someone is waiting. Also be mindful not to ask for or offer a card too early in a conversation, as it can be off-putting.
Introduce yourself to hosts and organizers.
During an event, introduce yourself to the hosts and organizers (if possible) and thank them for their great job. These are often well-connected people and beneficial to have in your network. They can also be great resources if you want to know who someone is (such as when you recognize a face, but can’t remember the person’s name or company), would like an introduction or if you have an important question related to the event.
Avoid only talking to friends and colleagues.
You walk into a room, scan the crowd and immediately head to the one or two people you know. This is fine as a starting point, but don’t stay there for the duration of the event. Step outside of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to others (or ask the people you know if they can each introduce you to one person). Once you make a great new connection, in the same way, don’t spend the rest of the event only talking to that person either.
It’s ok to use small talk, i.e., topics like the weather, transportation, score of the game last night or event-related things like the speakers, food or venue, as a stepping off point, but the key is to transition to something meatier. If you’re finding it hard, start by making the other person the topic of the conversation and ask them something about themselves or their company.
Speak with those around you.
When you’re waiting for the coat check, registration, bar or buffet, there’s a built-in opportunity to make light conversation with someone in front of you or behind you. Once you break the ice, your discussion can blossom from there.
Approach someone standing alone.
While you stand around feeling anxious, uncomfortable or just not knowing who to speak to, chances are, there are plenty of others experiencing similar sentiments. Take the initiative to start a conversation with someone standing by themselves – it will put you both more at ease and that person will remember you in a very positive way.
Make informative introductions.
“Jane, meet Bob. Bob is the head of product development at ABC Company and leads a team that designs those great widgets the panel was talking about. Bob and I actually met 5 years ago at this event! Bob – Jane is a…” The level of detail you know about people in advance will of course vary when making introductions, but any insights you provide can be helpful and both sides will really appreciate it. Showing your interest in helping others bridge connections reflects positively on you as well.
Ask how you can help.
Effective networking goes both ways, so don’t just look for relationships that you benefit from directly, look for opportunities where you can help others. Ask if there’s anyone you can introduce someone to at the event (assuming you know a few of the attendees), who would be a good introduction later or who an ideal client is etc. You can also invite others to future events or share helpful resources afterward.
Know how to walk away politely.
Whether the person you’re speaking with is a great new connection, aggressively asks for leads or you just reach a lull in conversation, think about a graceful exit strategy. You might excuse yourself to go the restroom (in which case, be sure to go and not walk up to someone else), go to the bar (kindly ask if they’d like to come), introduce the person to someone else, or politely say you see someone you want to say hi to.
You can also cue the end of a conversation with, “It was very nice to meet you. I hope you enjoy the rest of the event.” Or, “I want to be respectful of your time and make sure you have the opportunity to meet some other people here.” Only mention plans to connect and follow up if you genuinely mean it.
Make plans for next steps.
If you genuinely want to continue a conversation further or just stay in touch with your new connection, be specific about plans. The type of follow-up can depend on the person’s level and location, as well as the depth of conversation you’ve had, among other things.
Exchanging business cards and suggesting connecting on LinkedIn is a basic starting point that can pave the way to future engagement. You can also suggest a specific time and type of follow-up. For instance, “I really enjoyed our conversation and look forward to continuing it. I’ll email you tomorrow so we can set up a call next week (or lunch in the next few weeks).”
Successful networking starts with the right attitude, which can make attending events a more enjoyable experience and rich source of opportunity. If the thought of meeting new people and conversing with strangers causes you anxiety, try attending an event with a colleague, client or friend so you can help each other break the ice and get more comfortable. With practice, conversations will get easier, you’ll build confidence and ultimately build connections too.