How to get the most out of networking events
Turning up ‘cold’ and ‘speed-dating’ your way around the room are unlikely to yield real results
Networking is a two-way street. What do you have that someone else needs and vice versa. Photograph: iStock
There are few enough people who can breeze into a crowded room and immediately strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. For most of us, there’s that fleeting moment of discomfort as you take your time selecting a tipple from the drink’s tray while desperately scanning the room for someone you know.
Turning up “cold” to an event is not the best way to get a return on networking time. Neither is “speed-dating” your way around the room trying to talk to everyone in it. The process is way more productive (and less intimidating) when you approach it with a purpose and know who you want to meet, what you’d like from them, and what you can offer in return.
“Successful networkers don’t just turn up and show their face. Planning is required and goals should be set in advance,” says Orla Brosnan, managing director of the Etiquette School of Ireland. “If you’re going to an event, research who is going to be there so you can decide beforehand who you need or want to make contact with.
“Know what you want to say to them and what impact you would like to make. There is a general perception that networking is about working the room. It’s not. Working the room is a scattergun approach and while it’s better than not being there at all, it doesn’t allow you to make a genuine and effective connection with anyone.”
There is also a misconception that networking is all about meeting new people when a more effective and often easier place to start is with the people you already know. Are you nurturing the relationships you already have and tapping into them as deeply as possible? Keeping in regular touch with existing contacts means you are always on their radar if opportunities arise and you can ask for help when you need it.
Phoning someone up for a favour if you haven’t spoken in months is unlikely to end well and most people dislike those who only show up when they want something.
A two-way street
Networking is a two-way street. What do you have that someone else needs and vice versa. The better you know them, the more effectively you can identify and fill their needs and they yours. “It’s important to remember that good networking involves being generous with your own time and talents. It builds relationships and is mutually beneficial and supportive,” Brosnan says.
“Good interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are important considerations when networking,” she adds. “Look the other person in the eye and smile, projecting warmth. Never underestimate the importance of a good handshake. A firm grip gives the impression of someone who is authoritative and credible while a limp handshake leaves an impression of someone who is insipid.
“You also need to show interest in the other person, so ask questions and try to find common points of interest.”
Brosnan recommends preparing for networking events by having conversation starters to hand. For example, being familiar with current affairs or able to comment or ask questions relevant to the particular group you’re with.
“The more you know your ‘audience’ and what they are interested in, the better you can converse intelligently with them. However, be wary of coming across as too intense. If you are genuine and sincere throughout the process, you will recognise similar traits in other networkers,” Brosnan says.
Most people have experienced the pushy networker who lands in your face and proffers their business card before they’ve even been introduced. Shoving your card at someone to try to overcome the initial awkwardness is bad networking behaviour. It’s much better to start with a smile and a handshake and get the conversation going with one of your prepared topics. Let the exchange develop or come to an end before handing over your card.
To extract yourself from the conversation offer your hand, wish the person well and move on. Don’t linger or tell someone you will be in touch if you know that’s never going to happen. If you commit to further contact provide a timescale and stick to it.
“A networking opportunity should be viewed as the start of a relationship,” Brosnan says. “At the end of the conversation, you can take the initiative and suggest meeting again for a coffee or maybe a visit to each other’s workplace.”
-Be prepared. If possible identify the people you’d like to speak to in advance of an event.
-Pique people’s interest by being able to describe who you are and what you do in a couple of punchy sentences.
-Be clear about what you have to offer.
-Talk less, listen more so you get a fix on where a contact might lead.
-Keep your network alive by sharing interesting articles and information on a regular basis.
-Be prepared to “give” first.
-Ask your network for specific introductions that might help your career or business.
-Cultivate contacts with expertise and experience that can help you.
-Pay attention to personal things that crop up in conversation – they may be useful later to cement a relationship.
-Remember - the wider your network the better.