To be successful at networking first of all you cannot allow yourself to be a wallflower, no matter how tempting or 'comfortable' it might seem to just hang out by the coffee and wait to be 'discovered'. Here are some practiced tips for success at a networking function so that you can be prepared (which will help combat any anxiety you may have about going and meeting strangers) and come off looking and sounding smooth, successful and memorable.
1 – At home or the office (or the home office!), write out a list of your strengths, attributes, credentials, special skills, USPs (unique selling points) etc. of yourself as a business professional, and then write a list of strengths for your company. Each list should contain a minimum of 6 strengths, up to 10, so that you know why someone should be interested in your skills, services, product etc. Now these strengths are in your head to boost your confidence and remind yourself of why people should talk to you or listen to you. This exercise is for you and your confidence. During the actual small talk with others at the event you will limit your USPs to just a few while talking to others to ensure you do not confuse them with information overload or bore them by talking about yourself too much. Next you will write out one sentence that will be your opening line at the event, that introduces you, your target market, and how you help them or serve them. Here is a template you could use: "Hi, my name is (name), and I help (who?) with (what?)." You can add a few more descriptive details to this, as long as you do not create a long, run-on sentence that confuses your message. For example, I could say "Hi, my name is Ric, and (as a Communication Coach) I help entrepreneurs communicate with confidence and clarity (so they can succeed)." I could choose the longer version or the shorter one, depending on what fits the person or situation best.
2 – Visualize the room; visualize walking calmly, making eye contact, smiling, shaking hands, talking to people, exchanging ideas, asking questions, exchanging cards, etc. Visualization works well, especially for shyer people, and many successful people in business, sports, entertainment etc. use visualization to get an image of a successful action before going out to the event. The notion is that once you show your brain the pathway to success, it can lead you there. Chuck Norris, former American kick-boxing multiple champion, used to go up to the trophy table before the competition started, stare at the 1st place trophy, and imagine himself holding it up in celebration as if he'd just won first place. He imagined how much it weighed, what the texture was like in his hands, and also where in his house he would place it! He is just one of many famous people who used visualization to steady their nerves and train their brain to see and know the goal ahead.
3 – Show up with confident posture, a medium-paced walk, a smile and firm handshake, and lots of eye contact. Most people look to immediately connect with someone they know, but if you cannot find someone soon please be a leader and start talking to someone nearby. Think of yourself as a 'host' and not a 'guest' at the event. In other words, be active, not passive.
4 – Use the immediate environment to get the conversation started, like talking about the venue, the host, etc. and then find a common bond to keep it going. For example, talk about different networking functions you have attended, or talk about any common interests regarding vacations, work, hobbies. Small talk first is normal, then get down to business. If you are unsure of the order of topics that should be discussed in small talk, just remember the 3 Fs: Field (immediate environment, the weather, the venue), Facts (current affairs in the news, scores of recent sports games etc. - things that are factual and not opinions), and Fun stuff (ideas, opinions, jokes, travel, etc.).
5 – Have questions prepared to ask, to get people to talk about their needs, and then shape your conversation to reflect how you or your services could help in those areas. Don’t be pushy. Soft sell yourself. Build interest. For example instead of saying “I sell office insurance…do you need some?” you might instead say “Do you have your own office? What insurance rate are you paying, if I may ask? I am just wondering if you are getting the best value for your money. I am in the industry, and my job is to help small business owners avoid over-paying office insurance. What size of office do you have?” etc. Now they are more ready to be “helped” by you. By the way, you will notice that I put the 'help' word into that sentence, just like the template above. It is a powerful verb!
6 – Remember to repeat their name back to them a couple of times within the first two minutes, to reinforce the memorization of their name for you and also because people love to hear their name! Actively listen and keep a mental database of some details of the person with whom you are speaking to, so that if/when you decide to follow up with them, you can include some fun or personal details to make the conversation seem more personable and friendly. Do not be shy to ask for clarification on how to pronounce their name if it is difficult for you at first. This probably will lead to great conversation about travel, history and other small talk to break the ice.
7 – Always collect a business card or exchange social media contacts (like LinkedIn) if you are truly interested in the potential of this relationship, and feel free to be the first one to ask for the exchange. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Ask with some enthusiasm and at the time when he or she has just talked about what they do or how they can help you. Smile and offer yours. Ideally, if you are talking about yourself correctly, people will ask you for your card or connection. However, if they don’t, you may choose to offer. This is business, not a popularity contest. Having said that, you should keep in mind who energetically asked to connect to you, and who did not, just so you can be prepared to work a bit harder on the neutral ones when you follow up. Quick story: I once met a successful businessman who paid a lot of money to get his business cards made, so it worked out to at least a dollar a card. He told me that because the cards were fairly pricey he was more choosey of whom he gave it out to, and that was the point. He wanted to only give it to people he was serious about getting in touch with after. I guess if we think about this from the other side, if we get a card that looks like a lot of money was put into it, we should take that as a compliment! :)
AFTER THE EVENT:
8 – When you go home, write out information in your database or on the back of the card, or on a separate sheet of paper stapled to the card. These details will help build and maintain rapport for the next and subsequent meetings, emails, and phone calls. Everyone appreciates being remembered!
9 – Email them within 48 hours to say that it was nice to meet them, and perhaps mention a detail you remember about your conversation, and the suggestion to ‘keep in touch’. I often email within 24 hours. Whenever you do, just make it memorable and intriguing.
10 – Unless you had already planned a meeting previously, follow up a week later and see if you can arrange a drop-by visit or a coffee, if you think this relationship has potential. It is okay to initiate contact. Be a leader, not a follower. On a side note, after 2 emails it is time to place a call. Do not bombard their inbox. You might get their voice mail. Leave a great message (think about it before you dial!) and after that - you need to give it another week before following up, or maybe giving up. You will have to evaluate this based on your feeling and what was said in your meeting and any correspondence. That is another reason why notes are a good idea!
To your success!