Networking is not confined to events but in this particular post I am focusing on networking at events. I’ve been to my fair share of networking events especially since starting Gradstrategy. In hindsight- the source of all wisdom, I wish I had done more networking in my early career. I don’t think I always related to some of the events but with the rise of Eventbrite and Meetups we are now more exposed to lots of great events.
When you network well your career and even personal life will be enriched and you will get a lot out of it. This being the case there are still people who won’t network and think that networking doesn’t work. The truth is for some people talking to strangers is second nature and for others, it isn’t. So before you read about the 7 habits of highly effective networkers and condemn your own style or stare with envy across the room as someone else commands and works the room, identify for yourself if small talk with strangers is a challenge for you.
There is almost no point learning advanced networking techniques if you struggle with the basics. If you can get the basics right then the rest will follow.
1. Dress smart
It’s not always clear what you should wear at some of these events especially since they are outside of office hours. Do you go home and get changed, do you turn up in work clothes. Is it a formal affair or relaxed? Whatever the case you are better off turning up over dressed than under. It’s easier to dress down by taking off a jacket or tie than to show up looking casual and looking out of place.
I have read of loathings of ties or other formal attire and people that say it doesn’t matter what they wear because their work speaks for itself. Avoid this kind of rhetoric it is very unhelpful. The fact is we are visual creatures and people won’t admit this or even do it deliberately or consciously but they will make judgements about you based on how you are dressed. Often in a professional setting people won’t even say anything but you might get feedback in the form of loaded seemingly throwaway comments. If you don’t believe me, check this out at the time of writing the piece had amassed 50, 000 likes and comments.
You don’t go to network to stand out for the wrong reasons. You go because you believe you will meet with a group of like-minded people. When you walk into the room, no one knows who you are so you want to make the right first impression because you only get that chance once. In the 7 seconds it takes to make a judgement, that judgement really won’t be based on your unseen or ill displayed intellect at that point if you get your attire wrong.
2. Arrive early
Particularly if you are going to a new event you need to arrive early. If you arrive early you have time to find your bearings, settle your nerves, unwind from the day and switch your mind into a more positive frame. Arriving early allows you to be welcomed by the hosting team and for them to be more attentive to you. This in turn will make you feel more welcomed and relaxed.
Poor time keeping is a turn off. Admittedly it may be challenging to get through rush hour traffic to get to events, but making the effort and creating a good first impression is also good. The thing about events is a lot of work goes in behind the scenes and being on time is a nice gesture of appreciation to the hosts which also puts you in good standing and helps with introducing you in the group.
Something else to bear in mind is that you will possibly be joining an established circle. Arriving late means by the time you get there most people will be in the flow of conversation. This means it becomes more awkward and challenging to join in cliques and interrupt clearly established friendships and conversations.
3. Firm handshake
Handshakes are universally accepted as greeting and connection. A good firm handshake and eye contact are non-verbal signals that you are personable, confident and interested in making a connection with the other person. A firm handshake and smile will help you come across as warm and approachable. This will also help with ice breaking, advancing rapport and joining into conversation naturally.
When you offer a greeting and people do not recognise you, it allows you to introduce yourself and find out how things work. It makes room for more established members of the network to introduce you around.
The opposite holds true. If you stand back arms crossed and watch, you come across defensive and it probably makes it more difficult for people to approach you. This will lead to the feared isolation at networking, which will probably mean the networking experience is unlikely going to be enjoyable for yourself. If you want to be noticed and to get attention you should start with noticing others and giving them attention.
4. Be interested
Having introduced yourself don’t spend the rest of the evening talking about yourself and dominating the conversation. Say enough about who you are and what you do and ask questions. Continuing to talk about yourself, talking over people and being self-indulgent is rude and will undoubtedly kill any relationship you are trying to form.
After the hello what to say next is always a challenge. My three things that help break the ice is a comment about the venue, food or speakers, ask about what the other person does for a living and how long they have been coming to the event. When those details are exchanged the conversation starts to pick up.
Part of being interested is actively listening and asking more questions and sharing your thoughts appropriately. The idea is to find out where the common ground is because that is what heightens the connection and creates space for new relationships or contacts. People like people they can relate to in one way or another. This doesn’t change in a professional setting and it probably makes the transactional aspects of professional life better.
5. Be present
Once a conversation has been started there is a need to settle into the conversation. Drifting in and out reflects as rudeness and lack of interest. Being present makes the other person feel listened to. When you’re present in the current conversation you will find out new facts and pick up on non-verbal cues that let you know more about the other person.
There can be a number of things that might cause you to be distracted. That is why you have to be intentional about being in the right state of mind before you attend a networking event. Your mood can impact your communication and connection. In some cases you might be feeling too stressed, tired or anxious, it probably is worth postponing going to the event if you really don’t feel like it.
Going through the motions will make it an awful experience and you will probably associate networking with the negative rather than the positive that could come out of it. When you’re fully present only then can you make a judgement whether a connection was made and whether that is a relationship that you want to cultivate.
Really all these things are common sense but may need intentional practice to make the positive impact to your networking experiences. What will you try to do differently?