Networking is a key component of any professional's career growth. In the modern world, sending a LinkedIn request or replying to someone's tweet have become common ways to make connections, but these digital interactions are rarely as memorable and impactful as face-to-face conversations.
One of the best ways to meet a lot of potential contacts at once is attending an industry-hosted mixer, panel or conference. Here are five smart strategies for boosting your in-person networking game at your next event.
Know who's going. The topic of an industry networking event might sound interesting, but if you're going there to make connections, the guest list should be even more appealing to you. In a SimplyHired blog post, author Sarah Greesonbach advised professionals to target individuals who can hire you or help your career, and to go to events they would choose to attend.
Similarly, Jane Sunley, CEO of employee engagement company Purple Cubed and author of "It's Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer" (LID Publishing, 2014), said that you should choose events strategically based on your professional goals. [7 Networking Tips for Job Seekers]
"If your purpose is to extensively build your network, a mixer-type event will be more preferable to one where a number of speakers will be presenting," Sunley told Business News Daily. "If possible, get ahold of a guest list before you go, so you can work out who you'd like to meet and do a little research beforehand, which should help you form some topics of conversation."
Use a unique opener. "What do you do?" This networking icebreaker is so commonly used that it's almost become a cliché — and it may not even be appropriate if the event is for individuals in the same general profession. When you meet a new contact, switch things up and start a more engaging conversation. Kris Ruby, president and founder of Ruby Media Group, offered a few refreshing openers to try at your next event:
- What are you working on right now?
- Have you been following the story on (industry/popular news item)?
- Is this your first time at this event? How do you like it?
- What area does your work focus on?
Greesonbach wrote that you should always come to an event prepared with a few introductory questions like these, and you should be ready to share an anecdote or something you've learned recently that applies to the situation.
Listen more; talk less. Most people know that effective networking involves a two-way conversation, but when someone asks you about your career, it's easy to get caught up in talking about yourself. Sunley noted that event attendees should make an active effort to be genuinely interested in the person they're speaking with, and to listen just as much as they talk.
"Ask good questions," Sunley said. "By doing this, you can tap into the other person's needs, interests and personal information. This means ... [you] have a greater chance of building rapport on a real level and forming a basis to follow up on."
Bring a wingman/woman. For introverts, in particular, the mere thought of walking up to a stranger and starting a conversation can be truly nerve-wracking. One way to make in-person networking a little easier is to have a friend or colleague with you. Teri Kinsella, senior consultant at PI Midlantic, a behavioral assessment consulting firm, suggested finding a designated "networking buddy" or group.
"Get to know people and become a leader," Kinsella said. "It won't be like starting from scratch [for] each event. Take it a step further, and learn to pitch each other's businesses for softer introductions."
Focus on quality over quantity. Some people think that the end goal of networking events is to exchange as many business cards as you can. While you may think it's good to have these contacts at your disposal "just in case," it's more likely that you've only had meaningful conversations with a few of them. Sunley recommended exchanging cards when you've made a real connection and then following up with that person.
"On that note, make sure you make contact with those individuals in the next couple of days so the conversation and connection is still fresh in their mind," Sunley said.
Staying in touch
After the event, you'll likely go through the business cards you collected and send out emails and/or LinkedIn requests. But to make lasting connections, you need to remind your new contacts that the conversation you started is worth continuing.
You should always send a follow-up email and reference "a topic you discussed, and keep the conversation going, so you are able to work together if the need arises in the future," Ruby said.
In your post-event discussions, it's important to find common ground anywhere — aim for friendship first, and worry about sales later, Kinsella said.
"I once found a client because she was looking to purchase a dog that was the same breed as my new puppy I had told her about," Kinsella said. "We connected on LinkedIn to discuss dogs, and it led to a sale."
To find even more common ground,entertainment journalist and television personality Tom Murro advised going beyond LinkedIn and asking new contacts to connect on other forms of social media, like Twitter or Instagram, if appropriate. These networks tend to be more personal than LinkedIn and can give you the insight you need to develop great professional friendships.