Networking events can be a real waste of time, and this from a man who attends many. Most of your ideal targets are NOT there. Financial advisers, insurance salesmen, and sometimes staffing firm sales guys—yikes!—may waste your time with conversation that isn’t productive, but there are still a lot of reasons to attend. I’ll assume you’ve decided to take the plunge for whatever reason, so if you’re on your way, here’s how to get the most out of it.
1. Prep for who you want to talk with
Many organizations running events will allow you to get a peek at the attendee list once you’ve registered. I’ve almost sworn off attending networking events that don’t. The day before the event, I’ll run through the list for 15-20 minutes and make a list on 1/8 of a page that fits right in my pocket. I just write the name, the company, and a quick note on why I want to talk with them if it’s not obvious, such as an open IT job on their website in my case. I keep it in my front pocket and try to check it off as I go through the evening, telling as many people as possible about who I want to meet and seeing about an introduction.
2. Arrive early/stay late
The people who run the organization and the event are often pretty well connected and may even know some of the attendees on my list, so I will often show up even before the event has started. I’ve met people on my list as much as an hour before a really large event starts. I’ll introduce myself to the people organizing and offer to help setup. They always appreciate the offer, even if there’s nothing for me to help with. Staying late is a little riskier, since sometimes it’s just the drunks that don’t want to go home and have no value to add, but it’s also an opportunity to build relationship through an extended conversation for a particular target about anything that interests them (read: NOT an extended sales pitch for your product or service.) If nobody that’s a real target is hanging around, don’t just stay to enjoy an extra beverage. You’ve got calls to make in the morning after all.
3. Start with a tonic (or Sprite) and lime
If, like many of us sales people, you enjoy having a couple drinks when the day is done, or you just want to have one or two to loosen you up for the painful experience that awaits you, make sure you start slowly. When you’re a little nervous to begin with, you don’t want to get going too fast, so make the first drink a tonic and lime, no booze. It’s social to have a beverage in hand at an event and everyone will think you’re enjoying the atmosphere and contributing to the conviviality since it looks like a party drink. Then, if you are someone who does enjoy an alcoholic beverage or two, make sure to alternate between your drink of choice and the tonic and lime over the course of the event. You don’t want to be the drunk guy who doesn’t want to go home.
4. Talk to the people with a little (or a lot) of grey hair
Though not necessarily the rule, the people with the money and power to buy whatever you’re selling or be neighbors with those folks, tend to be those guys with a little salt to go with their pepper. Go talk with them. Here’s what to say.
5. Ask them why they’re there and who they want to meet, introduce them if you can
After introducing yourself by first name, leaving out the last name and company name to keep it comfortable and informal feeling, ask for their name and info and ask them why they came out to the event. They have a reason for being there and if they’ve got any game at all they know exactly why they’re spending 3 hours with mostly strangers. If they weren’t 100% clear about who they want to meet and what they want to accomplish, ask them very clearly, “Who do you want to meet tonight?” If you’ve met anyone that meets their definition, introduce them immediately. After trying to make a connection, share with them who you want to meet and see if they know anybody on your list and could introduce you. If you have to linger in the conversation after that, ask them what their biggest revenue or income drivers will be this year. You’ll learn a lot when you ask someone how they can make the most money this year.
6. Get out of unproductive conversations
Don’t be afraid to quickly exit conversations that are adding no value to what you’re there to accomplish. You’ve got to be quick about the conversations if you’re talking to someone who’s not on your list. If they’re talking too long and you can’t find a reasonable break to exit, cut them off. It shouldn’t be considered rude at a networking event. Simply tell them it’s been a pleasure to speak with them, but there’s a few people you’d still like to meet and thank them for their time. Exchange cards only if you really see some value.
7. Interrupt conversations
There will be moments when you will find yourself floating amongst people who all seem to be deep in conversation. Interrupt one. If this is a problem for you, then it’s time to grow and stretch, get out of your comfort zone and remember the end goal. A pool in the back-yard. Private school for the kids. A restored ’96 Mitsubishi 3000 GT. (Some day. . . ) As for briefly interrupting a conversation to introduce yourself, it should not be considered rude to walk up to a two-some or three-some and simply introduce yourself. You don’t have to hijack the conversation, just give them your first name, get theirs and start listening. Then when there’s a chance to contribute, repeat steps 4-7.
Oh, and if you skipped over the drunk-related links embedded above, please go back and click on one. They cracked me up and don’t worry they are work appropriate.
Mark Tyrrell is the Managing Partner and a founder of Right Resources and has recruited professionals in the DC/Baltimore area since 2004. He graduated from Villanova University with a Bachelors in Business Administration and started his career as an ERP consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. He has staffed positions for some of the most respected companies in Baltimore, including Constellation, Computer Sciences Corporation, Black & Decker, and Edaptive Systems. He lives near Baltimore with his wife and two beautiful children and is humbly grateful for all the opportunities God has provided, including this company.