I admit it. I enjoy walking up to strangers at networking events, happy hours and the chicken dinner circuit. While I’ve never been considered the coolest guy in the room, I do feel confident that I hold my own even if I don’t hold court.
My technique is pretty simple, and I encourage less comfortable networkers to give these tips a try.
1) Arrive early and avoid the people with whom you will be sitting. When I worked on the corporate side, I would always become disappointed when my co-workers would arrive late or huddle together and only talk to each other during the mingle time prior to sitting at the table. Take advantage of the time before you’re forced to sit and speak to people you already see at work every day! The time before dinner is where you can meet new people, and make sure that decision makers know that you’re in attendance (see tip #7). Waiting until after the dinner won’t work, because people bolt for the door after the presentations are complete.
2) Network like you’re Snorkeling. This tip comes from Dave Sherman (@davespeaks1 and www.daveshermanspeaks.com). I recently heard him explain how networking is like snorkeling. New snorkelers or tourists on a dive often swim out as a group looking for fish—only to instead scare the fish away! Instead, he goes off on his own and finds a piece of coral. He holds still and before long, the fish come to him. Dave suggests when networking, you do the same thing. Plant yourself at a waist-high bar table in the traffic flow of the room and let people walk around and up to you. Ultimately, you’ll see everyone in the room walk by and you can stop and talk to the people you’re looking for.
3) Target the people standing by themselves at a table, along the wall or off to the side. While Dave’s tip #2 is excellent for events where you already know a lot of people in the room, when you don’t know a lot of people I have an alternative suggestion. Seek out the people who look lost or alone. You’ll often find them along the walls or off to the side watching people walk by or at a table staring off in to space not talking to anyone else nearby. These are often the easiest people to meet because in many cases they’re hoping someone will walk up them and start a conversation because they are unwilling or afraid to walk up to strangers themselves.
4) KISS: Keep it simple, stupid! You’re not in high school trying to get a date, just keep it simple when it comes to an opening introduction. Hi, my name is… works fine. Have a simple back-up question ready, like “have you attended this event before” or “are you excited that football season starts this week” to try and get the conversation started if needed. Don’t talk about your work.
5) Focus on making a connection, not selling a product. No one is going to buy what you’re selling at a networking event. Your goal is to make a connection so that if you follow-up after an event the person will remember you and the conversation. Let them talk as much as possible. The more you learn about them, the more likely you’ll make a connection.
6) Offer and accept business cards selectively. There are no prizes for handing out or collecting the most cards. You’re looking for the cards of people you made a connection with, or those that you think may be potential business contacts. After you take a card, write down some reminders of your conversation on the back. Examples are if they indicated a favorite sports team, or grew up in an out-of-state city near you. When you follow up by email, or you see them at a future event, you can use that information to further build upon your connection.
7) Shake hands with the important people. You don’t need to have a conversation, or even say your name. But it’s important that you walk up to elected officials and key decision makers and shake their hand. Just walk up as they are talking to someone else, put out your hand and say that it’s nice seeing them at the event and walk away. They’ll assume you’ve already met in the past. Over multiple events, they’ll come to recognize your face. The pay-off comes when you eventually need to go to them to discuss something important. They’ll remember you from attendance at community or charity events—if not completely how or why—helping them view you as more than a stranger just asking them for something.
Last things to remember: No one ever refuses to talk to a stranger at one of these events. Nor do they walk away when approached by someone they don’t know. When the conversation dies out, or the person isn’t the right fit for you to chat with, simply tell them it was nice to meet them and walk away and walk up to someone new. And finally, smile when walking up to people! You’ll be surprised how many people smile back before the first words come out of your mouth.