Some call it networking. Some call it “working a room.” Whatever the name, networking at its best is a way of life and a way of doing business.
But good networking doesn’t happen by chance and luck. It takes a plan, an attitude and work. Don’t just survive your next networking event with sweaty palms and nervous glances. Thrive at it.
Here are tips for effectively working a networking event. I’ve learned these from Diane Darling, author of “The Networking Survival Guide,” and through more years of experience than I care to admit.
1. Prep. If you are going to a networking event, find out in advance who else is going. Research the group that is sponsoring the event and the types of professionals likely to attend. It doesn’t take much to find out about an industry. Searching the news and LinkedIn groups for five or 10 minutes can provide that tidbit about what’s happening in an industry — making for a nice conversation starter.
2. Dress. You want to stand out, but not too much. Try a blazer, tie or scarf in a different color than most businesspeople wear to set you apart.
3. Carry. Business cards as well as something to hold them and the business cards people give you are all must-haves. Try a small portfolio or business card case, along with a pen that you can use to jot a note about, a) what you talked about with the person, and b) what to follow up on, if anything.
4. Walk. Body language tells a lot. Think about yours and what it’s telling people. Are you open (using a smile)? Confident (a purposeful walk)? Relaxed (your arms unfolded at your sides)?
5. Fish by the food. If there’s food at the event, don’t go to the serving area to eat. However, do go there — because that’s where people tend to be most accessible and talkative. Making small talk about the food is a good way to break the ice.
6. Circle. If you’ve got an attendee list before the event, great — you can check names of people and companies you want to meet. If you don’t have a list, make a slow walk around the room to take in names from nametags. Then decide whom you want to meet. The benefit of this step? It helps you maintain eye contact when you are introducing yourself. This is vitally important for building rapport and trust. Once you’ve got people’s names in memory, you don’t have to look sideways at the next person’s nametag while you’re talking with someone in front of you.
7. Aim high. Try meeting the VIPs or speakers, if any, before they speak. Why? Most people are shy about introducing themselves and won’t do so until they hear the speaker. Then, there’s a line. Beat the crowd.
8. Alone is good. Reach out to people standing alone. Just because people are alone doesn’t mean they are uninteresting. And just because people are talking with someone doesn’t make them the people you want to meet.
9. Let others go first. Ask a question, even something as simple as: “And you are…?” Ask others about themselves so you can connect to their interests and lives. Ask open-ended questions. Never start with a commercial of your own; it’s the fastest way to turn people off.
10. Respond. But be brief. Then, when someone asks who you are, have your sentence or two ready. Diane Darling’s is: “I’m with Effective Networking — we help companies and people figure out where to network and refine their networking skills. My name is Diane Darling.” She says her name last; it makes it more likely for people to remember it.
11. Shake. It’s an age-old custom from the days when handshakes meant two people were not enemies. But it still says a lot: It means you’re open to interacting. Don’t just shake upon introduction; shake when you say goodbye. Shaking goodbye is a good way to end a brief conversation and allows you and your new acquaintance to comfortably move on to the next person.
12. Give and take. Have your own cards ready in one pocket. Put the ones you receive in another.
13. Introduce. Be introduced. Offer to introduce people you know to other people you know. If you don’t know someone, ask someone you know to introduce you. Darling says that introductions are implied endorsements and provide a context for future conversations. You also can offer to introduce people you meet after the event is over. This increases your value as a networker and gives you the chance to ask for the return favor when you need it.
14. Expect. Don’t expect to close a sale at a networking event. Rather, go there to gather leads you can follow up on within a reasonable period of time, perhaps a couple days to a week. The true purpose of a networking meeting is to acquire the right to follow up later, Darling says.
15. Try politeness. All through the event, whether you’ve met the top prospect you always wanted to meet or the most irrelevant person, be courteous. It doesn’t cost any money and it is a good habit.
Richard Katz, CLU, ChFC, is treasurer and board member of insurance alliances organization Inter-Company Marketing Group (www.icmg.org) and vice president, direct marketing and sales, with ANICO Direct, a business unit of American National Insurance Co., Galveston, Texas. ICMG’s annual networking meeting for insurance marketing and product decision-makers is Feb. 1-3, in Phoenix.