I despise traditional networking events. Most people who know me would be surprised to learn this since I run a monthly networking event for the startup community. But the goal of my event is to be the “anti-networking networking” event. No name tags, no referral requirements. Instead, it’s about building your tribe and learning about up-and-coming startups using a pitch competition format. I consistently get great feedback from the attendees, but I know there are those who are still uncomfortable approaching someone new at an event, especially when they first arrive and scan the room, thinking, “who the hell should I talk to?” (And your brain helpfully says, “No one, leave now! Abort!”).
So here are six ways to make networking less horrible. You’ll soon be ready to start a conversation with anyone, connect with great people, and make networking beneficial.
1. Prepare your mindset. Focus on being calm, cool, collected, and ready to help others. You don’t need to be a talkative extrovert to make networking work for you. Some people can get a little rattled at the thought of meeting new people, especially in group environments, or they might have a little social anxiety. That’s natural, and most people at a networking event will feel some degree of that, so find comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and strength in that all you have to do is be a kind, curious person to break the ice (which is where the majority of the fear lies anyway).
2. Prepare your personal pitch before the event so you can share who you are, what you do and where you’re going in a CLEAR and CONCISE way. In this setting, keep initial interactions brief. Less is more when it comes to your opening pitch, especially before you’ve established an understanding of who you’re talking to and where the conversation is headed. This sounds like a simple exercise, but I can tell you after meeting literally thousands of people over the years and listening to hundreds of founders pitch their companies, most people are actually not good at their pitch if they don’t practice it first. They’ll word vomit an incohensive message jumbled together or it will go on far too long. All you need is something simple: “I’m Alex, I run a consulting company providing sales and leadership training to growing startups and career coaching for individuals. What about you?” From there, listen while the other person explains who they are, and tailor the rest of your pitch, or conversation, accordingly (i.e., “Are you looking for clients, investors, business partners, your sanity, etc.?”).
3. Find one person or a small group to speak with, versus attempting to interrupt a seemingly closed group engaged in a deeper conversation. Approach with a “smise” (closed mouth with a slight smile, kind eyes, not open mouth, full smile; to learn why, check out my Advanced Communication Skills online course). Start with a casual observation or comment, like: “Usually networking events can be a little stuffy, but this one seems pretty fun.” Often, that’s enough to start a light conversation. You can follow up with something like, “so have you met anyone new or interesting yet?” or “did you two come together or just meet here?” If introductions feel natural, go that route. If the others work together or know each other, ask inquisitive questions around that. If they’re not giving you much to play off of, ask, “so what brings you here tonight, anything in particular or you just enjoy meeting interesting people?”
The point is, try to phrase your questions in a slightly more fun and engaging way than simply, “what’s your name? What do you do for work?” You also don’t need to be a stand-up comedian to be interesting and engaging. Have a couple go-to questions and general observations in your back pocket ready to pull out for the inevitable “dips” in group energy or lulls in conversation. The most universally successful ones: “So what’s your story? “How did you get into your field? Where did you grow up?” The more engaging you can be, the more you strengthen the less-awkward-human-relationship-building muscle called… communication.
4. Look for ways to provide value to others. Instead of wondering, “what can this person do for me?” think “how can I help this person?” If a conversation doesn’t feel right, simply say, “excuse me for a moment.” and move on. But if the vibes are good, shift into helper mode. Even if you think the other person is more successful or further along in their career than you, do it anyway.
5. Make an effort to truly understand what the person does, why they do it, and where they’re going. Then start to connect the dots on how you can help. It could be by setting up an introduction with someone you know, sharing advice, perhaps a book recommendation or a podcast to follow. Be someone who helps other people in any way you can. Do it because you’re a good person, not attached to reciprocity (but the good karma doesn’t hurt and WILL come back to you, I promise).
6. This is the most critical step: FOLLOW UP! Use a Notes app on your phone (my favorite is Evernote). Don’t just save a person’s info in your Contacts because you might forget to follow up. You can take their business card and jot a few notes down (“has a mustache, in marketing, plays in a band, knows angel investor!”).
Either that night, or first thing the next morning, send a brief email mentioning something from the conversation (ideally the most funny or interesting thing to jolt their memory back to a positive interaction with you) and a request for coffee/call/happy hour or other action item you left with. Make sure this is a mutually beneficial next step. No busy professional wants to grab coffee when they’re unclear on why they should go. If you happened to connect with someone on a genuine friend and human level, then no “incentive” is needed, but that’s not always the reality of the first interaction from a networking event. Also, be sure to suggest times that work for you so they can just pick one of them or suggest another. Don’t just say “Let’s schedule a call” or “What works for you?” Don’t leave something for an extra 3-4 emails that can be done in 1 or 2.
Here’s an example email:
Nice chatting with you at the Founders Live event last night. Crazy that we both know Jenny from Jersey… small world!
It would be great to continue the conversation about angel investing and who I might be able to introduce you to.
Are you free for a call/coffee next week? I’m available Tues. and Thurs. between 12- 2pm. Let me know what works for you and I’ll send an invite.
This is my email style. You can trim it down or spruce it up according to your personal style and how well the convo went, but you get the idea.
There is no “perfect” way to get the most out of a networking event, but these are my surefire tips to quickly become better at it. I have lots more on this topic, including the best ways to sell yourself, simple tricks to ensure high value people gravitate to you, and other juicy content. Head over to our website, www.evolveleadership.co, to check out these other resources. Also, be on the lookout for parts 2 and 3 of this networking series coming soon. For now, try out these tips at your next networking event, and comment below letting me know how it goes!
Founder @ Evolve Leadership