The first time you attend a networking event, such as a conference or Meetup, you may be as nervous and uncomfortable as I used to be. Most people’s biggest concern is how to break the ice. Take a deep breath, relax, and know that it does get easier with practice. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself networking at the grocery store or your child’s soccer game without realizing you’re doing it! This article, adapted from my book Network Beyond Bias, can help.
At any networking event, be a pop of color in a sea of gray. Smile. Consider wearing something distinctive as a conversation starter. Ask good questions, offer to help, and look for a connection. So many people are only out for themselves. By putting out a different vibe, and expecting nothing for the value you offer, others will be drawn to your energy.
Have an “Elevator Pitch”
Once you understand your personal brand, work up a 30-second introduction for yourself. Someone will inevitably ask, “So, what do you do?” You’ll want to have a clear and succinct answer to that question.
The idea is not to recite the same 75-word script every time you meet someone new. On the contrary, you want to be confident, casual, and natural in the way you explain who you are and what you create in the world. Be consistent in your messaging without sounding rehearsed in your delivery.
Give Without Expecting a Reward
When you meet someone, introduce yourself with a smile, eye contact, and a warm handshake. Ask friendly questions and be an active listener. Look for common interests or experiences that might give you “in-group” status on some level: your kids may go to the same school, you share a love of opera, or you both cheer for same basketball team.
Ask what interested them about the conference you’re attending or how they’re connected to the host organization. Chat for a bit to see if you can help the person in some way. Finding a way to help gives you a reason to ask for their contact information. Make sure you follow up by giving them the help you offered (a referral, perhaps) or by introducing them to others in your CHAMP network.
Tips for Using Business Cards
In any social situation, there are unwritten rules of behavior, and opinions will vary. The exchange of business cards is no exception. In Asia, for example, there is a formal protocol for accepting someone’s business card. In the United States, just about anything goes. Still, I find good manners go a long way in creating the all-important first impression.
Always ask for someone else’s business card before offering your own. Be sure to tell them that you would like to contact them for a specific purpose, and be sure that purpose isn’t to sell them something. (Remember, the goal of networking is to build relationships for the long term.) After they’ve handed you their business card, you may respond in kind. Conversely, if someone asks for your card, ask for theirs in return.
“What if I don’t have business cards?”
I’m a big fan of creating personal business cards for networking. Don’t use your employer’s logo – or even the company’s name. A simple white card with your contact information will suffice, and you can get as creative as you like. You are, after all, representing your brand. You can print your own cards or order more professional ones. Sites like VistaPrint and Moo offer high quality options at affordable prices.
Include your name and phone number at a minimum. Your email address should be simple and professional, ideally some variation of your first and last name. If you don’t have an email address that matches your name or personal brand, set up a free account at Gmail or Outlook.com. Don’t go on a professional networking expedition with an outdated (or unprofessional) email address. If your name has changed, such as following a marriage or divorce, it’s important to refresh your contact information for consistency.
Finally, if you use social media in a professional way, include these handles in your contact info. I recommend including your LinkedIn profile at a minimum.
Leave some “white space” on the card. That way, you can write down a referral or recommendation as you give it away. Or, the recipient can capture a brief note about where you met and what you discussed.