Networking — you’ve gotta love it!
OK, some people do love it. But whether or not you’re one of them, networking is an essential part of ongoing success in our modern world of work:
- If you are a business owner or service provider (as increasing numbers of us are), networking provides you with new prospects, new clients, new colleagues (who can refer you), and new ideas.
- If you work for a company or firm, the same is true!
- And if you expect to ever again in your life have to look for a job (as increasing numbers of us do), networking — staying in touch with old colleagues as well as meeting new people — is your best source of referrals, recommendations, and industry insights.
With all those benefits, it’s clear that all of us should be networking — at conferences, events, the grocery store — at least some of the time.
But often, people are deterred by thinking that there’s only one right way to network, when in fact, the way that will work best is the networking approach that’s right for you!
“Should I Have an Action Plan Before a Conference or Networking Event?”
The steps to creating a networking plan are pretty simple:
- Find out who’s expected to attend the event — Speakers and conference organizers are easy to identify, and some organizations circulate lists of their other expected attendees
- Learn something about these people — Start by Googling them and checking their Linked In profiles, as well as whatever appears on their company’s web site
- Decide who you’d most like to meet — Remember, however, that you can never know in advance who you’ll hit it off with, or who will turn out to be an important contact
- At the event, do your best to meet them — Go right up to them, hold out your hand, smile, and introduce yourself
If, on the other hand, you’re the kind of person (like me!) who dreads being in crowds, and therefore gets in the bathtub 30 minutes before I’m supposed to leave the house and waits for my husband to come in two hours later and say, “Hey, aren’t you supposed to be going to a networking event tonight?” this have a plan/ work your plan thing is probably overkill.
In my case (and perhaps yours), just getting to the venue before the event is over is usually about as much of a plan as I can take on.
“How Many People Should I Meet at a Conference or Networking Event?”
Again, this depends on your style, preferences, and tolerance for socializing.
For several years, I was privileged to moderate a panel discussion on networking for the State University of New York (SUNY)-Levin Institute’s JumpStart program for new entrepreneurs.
This panel contained a lively mix of people, including some very extraverted extraverts.* Both of these gentlemen (each was quite delightful in his own way) liked to set pre-networking goals for themselves, such as:
- “I will meet every single person at this event.”
- “I will meet 50 people tonight.”
- “I will not leave until I’ve met the 5 people who are most likely to help my career,” etc.
This approach obviously wouldn’t work for me, and possibly not for you either. I often leave networking events feeling positive that I’ve spoken to 20+ people. But when I get home and turn out my pockets, I’m carrying 5 business cards!
I don’t worry, though, because among the five people that I actually met is likely to be one that I’m very glad to know!
“What’s the Best Way to Prepare Myself to Be A Better Networker?”
Practice talking about your job, skills, or business. You don’t have to say anything fancy (in fact, it’s better if you don’t, because you want the person you’re talking with to ask you questions). But you should be able to look someone in the eye, smile, and say something simple about what you do (“I’m a public speaking coach. I help people improve their communications skills.”), and for many of us this takes practice.
Work on your small talk skills. Small talk comes naturally to some, and is agony for others. This post will help you up your small talk game, and even if you never learn to love small talking, you’ll feel better knowing that you know how.
Force yourself to follow up. Again, I say “force” because this doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you love developing new acquaintances, you won’t need any tips for how to do this; if not, drop a short email saying that you enjoyed meeting the person (remind them of who you are and what you discussed) and, at minimum, add them to your mailing list (and ask to be added to theirs).
You never know what these seemingly random contacts may lead to, and since you went to the trouble to attend an event, make small talk, and collect someone’s business card, you might as well go that next step and stay in touch.
“Can’t I Do All My Networking Online?”
You’ve probably gathered by now that I’m not a rah-rah proponent of person-to-person networking, but the answer to that question is no.
Once in a while, even the most die-hard introverts among us (including me) have to clean up, put on some decent clothes, leave the house, and actually talk to people.
You never know what will come of these adventures, and — as my extraverted friends remind me — they can often be fun in and of themselves.
So get out there, hit an event, and have fun meeting people. You can’t go wrong if you do it in a way that works for you.
*An extravert is someone who prefers to hang out in the external world of people, places, and things. Introverts, on the other hand, like to cozy up to our own thoughts and feelings, in a quieter, more intimate setting.