The Secret to Good In-Person Networking

Ladies and gents, I need to vent. Like most people, I have a few pet peeves. I can’t take the sound of gum-chewing. I hate it when people bring their cell phones into the bathroom. I wish every car came equipped with an automatic oil slick button to send tailgaters into a tailspin. And, I cannot stand the sight of poor in-person networking.

In the past few months, I’ve attended industry events, panel/seminars, dinners and luncheons and I’ve routinely seen the same old bad habits that have driven me mad for years. Yes, walking into a room full of people can be daunting. But, everyone is there to meet new people just like you. So, here are a few tips and tricks to improve your in-person networking skills.

Spread Out — We’ve all seem them. Employees from the same company huddled together in a corner during a cocktail party. Or, taking up an entire table at a luncheon. I ask you, how is that networking? The goal is to meet other people and create visibility for your company. Spread out. Sit at different tables. Work the room from different ends. You can always meet up again and compare notes or make introductions. But, you will never meet anyone new unless you go for it. And, frankly, as someone who has been stuck at a table full of people from the same company, you are doing a disservice to others who want to meet new folks too.

Joining/Starting a Conversation — So many people say, “I just don’t know how to join a conversation. I get scared. I stand near people but I don’t know how to get in there.” Well, here are a few good tips:

— “Hello, my name is…” Seriously, this is still a great way to start. “Hi, I’m Jennifer” will always get an introduction in return. It’s not like their gonna ignore you or guffaw walk away. No! They’ll introduce themselves back at you. Shake their hand warmly and you are off and running. Remember the “scary part” can be over after just three small words.

— Ask questions. The old adage is true, people love to talk about themselves. Ask someone where they work, what they do, what the company does… If it’s an association event, “how long have you been a member?” can be a great place to start.

— Work the bar. If you’re still a little nervous about just walking up to someone, standing in line at the bar is a great way to begin because you can comment on what’s being served, or on the length of the line, etc. Plus, when you walk up behind someone, it’s natural for that person to turn and see who you are. A quick “hello” right then with a handshake and suddenly you are in a conversation.

— Good universal topics. Obviously, if it’s an industry event you can discuss the industry. But, if you want to keep it more social, I’ve found the movies to be a great generic topic. Most people like movies and of those who do, they either want to share their opinions or like getting the scoop on something they haven’t seen. It’s a good generic topic that usually fits most crowds. So, a simple, “have you seen…” or “have you heard anything about…” can spark an interesting conversation. Of course, if there is a speaker at the event, asking if they’ve heard that speaker before or read his/her book could also be a solid icebreaker.

Make Yourself Memorable – In a Good Way — There are a few people we tend to remember the most from networking events. Obviously, we’d all love to be that funny guy/girl, the person who is just naturally entertaining. If that’s not you, don’t force it. But, you are comfortable enough, pocket a few good anecdotes that always get a laugh. Just make sure they are generic enough not to offend anyone.

A more universal way to be memorable is to be the resource. This is the person who may know someone who could help. Or, who came across a good web site on that topic. Or, who just read an article about that demographic. People will remember you if you appear helpful and interested in them. Just remember, if you say you’re going to send them a link or make an intro, do it.

Zero In to Be Effective — Oftentimes association events will provide an attendee list in advance. If not, email the event organizer and ask for one. This helps to ensure the crowd is a good fit for your business and lets you identify those few people you really want to meet. I’ve found when I have a mission, I’m more relaxed.

In fact, it can prove to be another icebreaker. If you are having trouble spotting someone you wanted to meet, never hesitate to ask, “do you know So-and-So? I saw he’d be here and I was really hoping to introduce myself.” You may benefit from that person making the intro for you, which gives you an air of importance. There is nothing like someone else saying, “So-and-So, I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer, she’s involved in…”

A special tip: bring people you know into your zero-in strategy in advance. For example, I see that my pal Anne is attending an event where I really want to meet So-and-So. Now, before I’ve even arrived I have someone ready to make an introduction for me. Imagine, she gets there before me and tells So-and-So, “There is someone you should really meet. I don’t see her here yet, but I will be sure to introduce you.” Well, now So-and-So’s curiosity is up … and by the time she introduces us, he is already interested in learning more. See how the game is played?

Avoid Hangers-On and Don’t Get Stuck With the Wrong Guy — There is almost always one of them. That one guy who is so uncomfortable, he will latch on to the first person who talks to him and never want to let go. Don’t let it happen. In my experience, the hanger-on is usually the one person there who is not at all relevant to my business or needs. Don’t think you have to keep talking to him just because he wants to. There is nothing wrong with politely excusing yourself with a quick handshake and a “it was nice to meet you.” Then, walk away and join another conversation.

Business Cards — Please please please do not forget business cards. It really says, “I’m not even trying.” Do what I do: keep a separate stash of cards in different places. If I discover I only have 5 cards left in my wallet, I know I’ve still got a stack of them in my car.

And, here’s a little business card etiquette for you. When someone gives you his or her card, don’t just pocket it. Show them the respect to look at it. Not only is it polite, but you might actually see something of interest to keep the conversation going.

And, as much as you may love your iPhone or crackberry, it’s rude to make someone recite their contact information while you punch it in. Be respectful enough to do that on your own time, not theirs.

Follow Up — Don’t forget, the whole purpose is to make and keep these connections. Follow up online through LinkedIn and Facebook. Or, send an email saying how great it was to meet. If there is another event from the same group, give them a shout to see if they are attending. (They may be able to introduce you to someone on your zero-in list.)

So, that’s pretty much it. These events can be as fun and useful or as horrifying as you make them. It’s entirely up to you.

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