Networking events are often seen as a necessary evil, with the idea of attending one filling people with dread. Heading into a room full of strangers, working a room and trying to spark a connection that will get you where you want to be – this can all seem an unpleasant or, for the less confident among us, even an overwhelming prospect.
However, if you can conquer your feelings of discomfort, these functions can be your ticket to a new job or business association, and a great opportunity to gather information that will help you reach your career goals. And, in fact, networking isn’t as scary or as difficult as you might think. Here are seven steps you can take to give you confidence in your approach, avoid those awkward moments and make sure that you get the most out of every event.
Approach With Purpose
One of the most important – and easiest – ways to make the most out of a networking event is to prepare for it beforehand. Doing a little research can pay big dividends. First, find out a little about the background of those hosting the event or of any guest speakers. These will almost certainly be the busiest people at the event so, if you want to connect with them in a meaningful way, you need to be prepared.
It’s also a good idea to brush up on the latest industry knowledge before attending, especially if you’re young and relatively inexperienced or trying to break into a new sector. If there are any talks or panel discussions you want to attend but don’t know that much about, make sure you do some research into them. Not only can you prepare questions to ask, but these topics can prove to be great conversation points with other attendees; you don’t want to be caught out.
Finally, plan what you want to get out of the event. If the guest list has been published this might be a plan to chat with specific people, or it might be an outcome like having 3 new connections who might be able to help you into the job of your dreams. Having a goal like this will keep you focused, and avoid any uncomfortable feelings of aimlessness.
Look The Part
Looking professional and appropriately dressed is half the battle in any interaction. Make sure you think about the dress code in advance; depending on the industry, a more relaxed or a more formal style might be appropriate. You could also try and find photos from any previous events held by the same party and use them as a guide to your own wardrobe.
What you wear and carry also has a practical impact at a networking event. Women in particular will fare better if they either wear a jacket with pockets or ensure that their business card holder is always easy to locate in their bag; desperately rooting through your bag only to hand over a crumpled card is unlikely to create the impression you want.
While you should aim to dress to impress, being comfortable in your clothes is equally important. If you feel both at ease and appropriately dressed, it will come across in the way you present yourself. Body language has a huge impact on how others see you – with one study suggesting it forms up to 55 per cent of a first impression of someone – so when approaching a new contact lead with a firm handshake and a smile.
Brush Up Your Business Card Etiquette
First and foremost, make sure you don’t forget your business cards on the day, and double check beforehand to see that all the information on them is up-to-date and accurate. Even if you have some lying around, if they’re looking the worse for wear it’s worth printing off a new batch so you’ll be handing over clean and pristine cards.However, don’t hand over your business card to just anybody. Make sure you only give them out to people with whom you have a genuine interaction, because otherwise they’re likely to end up in the bin. Hopefully after connecting meaningfully with someone, you’ll also get a business card from them in return. Take a minute before moving on to jot down some notes on your conversation, to prompt your memory when reconnecting.
Quality vs Quantity
There’s no perfect amount of time to spend talking to someone at a networking event. It’s important not to monopolise anyone’s time, but there’s no need to try and conquer the entire room either.
Some people choose to limit any interaction to around 3 minutes to try and cover as much ground as possible; this technique can work well, but on the whole the best approach is to play it by ear. Each conversation you have will be unique, so try and gauge what the other person’s attitude is, and whether they want to move on or could be persuaded to have a longer chat.
Alternatively, if you are struggling to extract yourself from an unconstructive conversation without seeming rude, excusing yourself to use the facilities is a tried and tested escape route.
Make Conversations, Not Sales
It is commonly advised that you should prepare an elevator pitch – summing up who you are and what you do – before an event, so you can whip it out at the start of every encounter. It’s certainly no bad idea to think about how you can succinctly present yourself in a positive and relevant way. However, approaching networking as a purely sales exercise misses the point.
In any networking interaction, the aim is to leave an impression of yourself as a person as well as a professional. Asking pertinent questions, listening, and following the other person’s conversational and physical cues are just as important as conveying information yourself.
Although your time will be limited, try to use it to find some common ground and to have a real discussion. You’re more likely to stick in the mind of someone with whom you made a genuine connection than one to whom you made a short, generic pitch.
Position Yourself Wisely
Choosing where to make your approach can have a real effect on the success of an interaction. If you hover at the entrance and pounce on people when they first arrive you might increase your chances of talking to them, but hamper your chances of making a good impression. They might want a moment to size up the room or find a drink before joining the fray.
If there is someone you particularly want to talk to, waiting near the bar or the food table until they’ve got some refreshment and then moving in can be a good practice – although beware the awkwardness of trying to shake hands with someone holding a plate.
Ultimately, the most important thing is to stay alert to your surroundings and who is coming and going. You don’t want to get trapped in a corner and miss the opportunity to connect with someone of interest. Working a room is a skill developed with practice, so take note of what works for you.
You will be the best judge of whether an interaction has opened up further opportunities, but even if you’re not entirely sure, it’s worth following up on any leads. Inviting someone to connect on LinkedIn is a first step, but shouldn’t be considered a substitute for an email or a phone call.
And if you’ve had a conversation in which you’ve promised to follow up within a certain time frame, always do so! A good impression once lost is lost forever.
Claire Kilroy is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their website if you’re looking to hire a graduate, or on the search for internships and graduate jobs in London and beyond.