Like it or not, most professionals initially get their jobs by leveraging their network of contacts, and those contacts can be elusive if you never socialize. Just for the record, I’m not talking about landing your next gig through your brother or girlfriend. I’m talking about finding your next job through your brother’s friend’s neighbor’s boss’ wife’s childhood buddy who’s just been named vice president. Otherwise known as six-degrees-of-separation networking.
Having conversations with people and building relationships through in-person (and online) social gatherings is a critical part of any professional’s career strategy, but it’s also important to do it in a way that is manageable and comfortable for you (not to mention successful). Here are a few suggestions
If you’re one of the first people to show up at an event, it is more likely to feel like an intimate dinner party than a huge “meet and greet market.” You can have a few memorable conversations before the event becomes crowded and walking up to strangers becomes a lot less challenging when there are only a few in your field of vision.
Also, if there is a speaker at the event, showing up early makes it easy to meet them personally and even ask a question or two. Ironically, the speaker may well be the most important person you meet at the event and by showing up early you can potentially have his or her undivided attention before the end of the event, when everyone else wants to chat with the speaker.
Just be sure you’re respectful of the speaker’s prep time when he or she is concentrating on the logistics of their presentation, such as setting up a PowerPoint or sound-testing the mike or video equipment.
Go With a Buddy
Another great solution is to bring along your wingman or wingwoman – a friend or colleague who would be willing to go to the event with you. If he or she is the social type, you can let them make the introductions, and then you quickly become part of conversations that you didn’t initiate yourself.
Or the two of you can develop a strategy where you each have conversations with a certain number of people independently and then regroup to share the knowledge and contacts you’ve acquired. This halves the requirement that you talk to people, while doubling your networking efforts.
Have a Drink – But Watch Your Alcohol Barometer
If it’s a social networking event, alcohol will probably be served. Having a drink may reduce your inhibitions and make you more comfortable with the overall process.
Obviously there’s a line between relaxed and approachable and lampshade on your head, so be sure not to cross it. Nurse a beer, order a wine spritzer, or switch to soda after one or two drinks. Just holding a drink in your hand automatically makes you social; you don’t need to be throwing them back. Stay conscious about your level of drinking, and don’t consume more than one alcoholic drink an hour.
Work the Front Desk
If you find making small talk difficult, consider volunteering to handle the on-site registration or check-in for the event. Every attendee will have to pass by before entering the event, and the conversations may flow more freely as a result, since attendees generally have to supply their names as part of the registration process.
Also, by working the front desk you will be privy to the list of attendees and probably even other valuable information such as their job title, the company they work for, and their email address, although this may be highly confidential data, so be very discreet in how you use it.
This starting point can provide great insights, however, because you can plot a few strategic conversations using this knowledge, or you can leverage the information to do some online sleuthing later or connect with specific attendees via LinkedIn. Be cautious though and let enough time elapse that it isn’t obvious where you got their information and don’t mention the check-in desk connection or your quarry may put it together.
Become the Organizer
Being an event organizer often requires a great deal of behind-the-scenes work, but it puts your name out there front and center with attendees. If you’ve had phone conversations or email exchanges with these people prior to the event, they may already feel like they know you and may actively seek you out during the event to talk.
The same holds true for the presenter at the event, which could yield dividends down the road. As the point-person for the presenter, you will get to know him or her prior to the event and he/she will be relying on you for important information related to the venue, attendees, logistics, and equipment. You will become a valuable resource for the presenter and he/she will be grateful for the information you provide. Being helpful makes you memorable and it increases the likelihood that this person would reciprocate and help you, should you reach out with a question or request for advice or an introduction in the future.
Create a Strong Online Presence
If a list of attendees is published and circulated prior to the event, attendees might decide to research others beforehand. By having a strong online presence on LinkedIn and other online identity sites like Google+, ZoomInfo, and BrandYourself, you make it easy for people to find you and become familiar with your background. These profiles can include your phone number and email for quick access if you are comfortable sharing this information.
Building online profiles gives you the opportunity to take control of your online presence and create a searchable branded bio to position your experience in the most keyword-rich way. This is a much better strategy than having someone Google you only to find a random assortment of facts including where you work, your running time in a previous marathon, and a comment you made on a somewhat controversial blog back in the Jurassic era.
After an attendee reviews your online presence, they may want to get to know you better, and some might chose to connect with you and begin a dialogue prior to the event. This is a great way to break the ice, and then when you meet the person at the live event, you may already feel like you know them to some extent.
Focus on Listening Instead of Talking
Many people think you have to be “a big talker” or “smooth” or “funny” to be an effective networker. But the more important networking skill is being a good listener, and people who are somewhat introverted or believe they are less social often excel at listening. Remember to ask “curiosity-based questions” of the person you are talking to, rather than focusing the spotlight on yourself.
You can ask them about their job, how they broke into their field, or what they like about the company they work for. By doing this, you will be gaining valuable insights and information about this person and they will thoroughly enjoy the conversation because they are talking about themselves. Not-too-secret-secret: Most people think you are a great networker when you let them do most of the talking!
Have a Few Meaningful Conversations Rather Than Several Unmemorable Ones
Many people go to social events and try to talk to as many people as possible. They may return home with a stack of business cards, but have little memory of the people they met – or the most important conversations – because the conversations were not long enough or engaging enough to be memorable.
A better strategy is to have a few meaningful conversations with just a handful of people. Building a deeper, more authentic relationship from the get-go yields better results down the line. You might ask an attendee if they’ve participated in other events the organization has hosted and learn more about what the association has to offer and who the key members are.
Or you might ask someone how long they’ve been in the business – or how they started out – and be treated to a rich overview of their work history and contacts.
Be sure to exchange business cards and jot a few notes down about the person before leaving the event and then follow up with a LinkedIn invite to remain top of mind with your new contact and keep the momentum going.
Treat Others the Way You Would Like to Be Treated
Many people don’t like networking because they have had experiences with others at social events that were at best uncomfortable, and at worst, creepy. There are certainly bad networkers and people who ask for too much too soon or bore you into stupefaction.
You can’t meet someone for the first time at 6 p.m. and ask to be introduced to a key contact at 6:15 p.m. You have to build the relationship over time and earn trust respectfully. Nonetheless, some people do this, turning others off, and networking gets a bad rap.
You definitely don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) that guy or gal. Treat others the way you would like to be treated and be 100% authentic and helpful. Think of ways you might be able to support or assist the other person, and the relationship will eventually blossom. People remember those that have assisted them over the course of a lifetime, and are more likely to reciprocate if they can possibly do so.
The next time you have the opportunity to go to a social event; whether it be a professional association meeting, a class reunion, a holiday party, a wedding, or a baseball game, try a few of these strategies and see what works well for you. You may end up making a new friend, meeting the person who will become your spouse, or starting a dialogue with someone who will be able to transform your career someday down the line.
Whatever the outcome, it’s worth the preparation to make the process a productive and successful one!