By Kristen Folz
Recently, The Wall Street Journal published an article about networking where it indicated for some people, networking is the “seventh level of hell.” Making small talk with a group of strangers is daunting for many albeit a necessity for growing one’s business or in some instances even obtaining employment. Below are some tips and ideas to help you improve your networking abilities. Remember, the word “networking” consists mostly of the word “working,” so do not think it simply happens in a passive manner. It takes planning and diligence to be a successful networker.
1. Do your homework: Before any event, whether it be a networking event or even a meeting, do as much research as possible on the attendees and event itself. If you are going to a conference or expo, pull the list of vendors and sponsors. You can then research more about each entity and prepare your “hit list” (explained below). The type of event can provide you with a lot of good information. Are the attendees there to generate business or to primarily socialize? This can impact the type of communication you use and even the way you dress for an event.
2. Prepare topics: If you have researched the event and attendees, you should be able to draft a list of potential conversation topics relating to common interests. Sports and current events always work as backup topics as well. When in doubt, if there is food or drink available, it is very easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger about what is good. Also, women tend to have easier conversation starters accessible to them such as compliments on handbags and shoes. Cheesy and stereotypical, I know, however, the sheer volume of networking connections I have made over the years when visiting the ladies room is impressive, based solely on asking about someone’s designer purse. This tends to not be as easy for men.
3. Make your Hit List: If possible, generate a list of your potential targets. These are the people you primarily want to locate at the event and speak to. With the invention of the Internet and LinkedIn, you can be prepared with knowledge about the attendees of special interest and know who you hope to interact with. Not to be confused with an actual hit list, this list should consist of people of high value to you who you think could benefit you professionally or maybe you could help them.
4. Be aware of non-verbal cues: While at the event, it is important to monitor both the non-verbal signals of others around you and your own non-verbal communication. When networking alone, I tend to look for stragglers or small groups of people who look bored. Those types of groups are easier to approach and start conversations with. You can also see who is in a closed conversation based on body language and them being turned into each other. It is less likely you can gain a successful entrance into that conversation. Regarding your own body language, keep your arms at your side and shoulders wide apart, angle toward newcomers, and overall maintain an open stance. A person with crossed arms is difficult to approach. Eye contact is critical, as well as positive facial expressions such as smiling. You may be scanning the room for your hit list targets, but you will want to devote your complete attention to the person you are speaking with. Only approach your targets when they are in an open stance, otherwise you may be viewed as intrusive.
5. Be an active listener: No one comes to networking events wanting to hear someone else recite their entire resume. Use your conversation topics and practice active listening by paraphrasing the other person. People are drawn toward warm personalities and humor. You can conduct business and close the deal once you have drawn them in with your award-winning personality.
6. Make a game of it: When networking with friends or colleagues, there is a tendency to cling to each other. Thus, make a competition out of it. Challenge your colleague to collect as many business cards as possible or make as many valuable contacts at an event in one hour. Loser has to buy the winner a drink. The goal is not just to run through the room flinging and grabbing business cards, but to force you out of your comfort zone and to introduce yourself to as many people as possible. When networking alone, force yourself to the back of the room to the farthest corner. Slowly work your way to the front of the room chatting along the way. Most people tend to run straight for the food and drink table. If possible, allow that to be a reward at the end of your successful navigation of the room. Besides, if you have worked the room successfully, you have burned more calories and can justifiably attack that dessert table.
7. Perfect your handshake: Always hold your drink in your left hand so that your right hand is dry and warm to the touch. No one wants to shake hands with a corpse that is cold and wet from your cocktail. Also, being a bone crusher or having a wimpy handshake sends messages about the type of person you are. Aim for a solid, warm, firm grip that lasts an appropriate amount of time. This is also good advice for dating, speaking strictly from personal experience.
8. Business Cards: Have them. Use them. Do not run out of them. That whole song and dance, “Sorry, I ran out of cards,” says you did not research the event properly to know how many to bring or that you are unprepared.
9. Follow up after the event: Probably the most important aspect of networking actually comes after the event. It is on you to follow up with your connections, especially your targets. People from different cultural and generational backgrounds communicate in different ways. Thus, if you send an email and do not get a reply, try changing the communication method and make a phone call. If you make a few attempts but do not hear back, do not take it personally. More importantly, do not become a stalker who continues reaching out to that person like a desperate lunatic. Chances are the person is really busy or does not remember you. However, if you did your networking job right, hopefully they will and you can meet again to continue to develop your professional relationship.
The more events you go to and the more you implement some of the ideas above, the more confident you will be. Ten years ago, I would not have had the confidence to walk into a crowded room of professionals and network. Nowadays, I look at it as a fun way to meet a lot of interesting people. Just remember, networking takes work!
Kristen Foltz is a professor of speech communications at the University of Tampa. She also provides corporate coaching on effective communication techniques. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.