When Eminem sings, “Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy,” I’m convinced he’s talking about networking events, and I agree with him. They can be super useful and helpful, or they can be a waste of time, resources, and shoe purchases. We all know networking events are some of the best places to find job leads, expand professional networks, gain industry knowledge and can result in some great business connections for that job that you’ve gotta have. They can also be great places to waste $30 and 3 hours of your time if you don’t have a networking strategy in place. I’ve been to some great — and not so great — events, and here are some tested tricks for networking in order to gain everything you need and nothing you don’t.
Ask yourself one question
“Why am I going?” is an easy question to ask yourself before deciding what events to attend. Being clear about what you want to gain from a conference can help eliminate ones that aren’t suited to specific needs or goals. Do you want to learn more? Find your own business mentor/Yoda? Knowing what you want to achieve from an event will help skim the fat off unnecessary meetings and your morning latte.
Once you know why you’re attending, it’s valuable to set goals. Setting intentions will help prepare you from the moment you walk into a conference with your head high to the moment you walk out. Make goals with parameters like how many people you want to meet, how many talks you’d like to attend, or how many business cards you’ll make rain over potential contacts.
Investigate like Nancy Drew
Researching the event will help you save time, energy and boosts confidence. If there are individuals you’re aiming to meet, do some pre-event research to dig into their speaking events or schedules. Make a list of people you expect to be there and want to chat with; have questions prepared. Do your due diligence on their background — it’ll make approaching them much easier.
Explore the conference’s formatting; panels versus breakaway sessions versus one-on-one opportunities are all different methods of getting what you want out of the event, especially with the limited time available to make your mark and make heads turn.
Investigating available sessions will help you select which to attend based on your professional needs. Conferences are like a choose-your-own-adventure — If you want to sharpen certain skills or find a mentor, an expert speaking panel might be the best route. If you’re looking to educate yourself on a general topic, larger keynote lectures will be your best bet.
Do something that scares you
Approach speakers after they are finished just to say thank you or “great job.”Everyone loves to be complimented, and you might even make a connection or a new friend!
Practice in the mirror
Approaching an individual or a group of people can be intimidating, but it’s much easier to initiate conversation if you’ve prepared what to say. Practice what you’ll say prior to an event (I do this in front of my bedroom mirror), and you’ll have the courage to approach even the toughest of CEOs. An opening line coupled with a firm handshake can do wonders. I recommend beginning with a question (people really do love talking about themselves) to show interest. Curious, open-ended inquiries are best like, “What’s keeping you busy these days?” Remain engaged, and don’t be too shy to add a bit of humor –it’ll ease the tension tenfold and everyone loves a good laugh. If you’re not funny, just fake it.
On the flipside, knowing when and how to leave a conversation is almost as important as knowing how to start it. By having a nexit (networking exit, get it?) line prepared, you’ll feel better about politely excusing yourself from conversations. Lines like, “I’m incredibly parched. I’m going to go grab a drink of water,” or, “I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Let’s exchange business cards and connect on LinkedIn,” are graceful segways into your departure.
Master the art of the fearless follow-up
Follow-ups are important so you keep shining after an event ends. Collect business card during the event, and when you get home, fire off some emails thanking your new connections for their time. I encourage adding small details of the meeting in the note to personalize it and to show how phenomenally engaged you were during the chat. Connect with those you’ve met on social sites like Twitter (if they use it for business) and LinkedIn. Make your presence known, and check in every so often to maintain a great relationship — you never know who might be a great resource down the road.
Albeit necessary, networking doesn’t come easily to everyone. Bringing strangers together to listen and learn from can be a daunting undertaking; even seasoned conference veterans get nervous. Remember that even the most outgoing, extroverted people find these situations challenging. My advice? Have fun and remember that it’s all part of the process. Trust me when I say, it does become — even if just a bit — easier over time. Enjoy!