Like many people, I used to hate going to networking events.
I’d get the invitation email and reluctantly RSVP thinking it’d be “good for my career.”
The day of the event, I’d drag myself to the venue.
After a quick scan of the room and quickly realizing I knew absolutely nobody (of course), I’d grab a beverage from the cash bar and a handful of cheese cubes from the deli tray.
Then I’d usually stand by myself in the corner and contemplate why I was there:
Why do I sign up for these stupid things?
Networking is always so awkward.
These are really good cheese cubes. Is this Monterrey Jack? Who was Monterrey Jack and when did he invent this cheese?
I wish I knew how to talk to strangers about what they did for work.
After about an hour and a few painful attempts at small talk with whoever passed by, I’d leave and be disappointed and frustrated with myself.
I was convinced that networking was just a big scam and a tremendous waste of time.
Then a few weeks would pass and inevitably I’d receive yet another networking invitation.
Again I’d reluctantly RSVP and the circle of awkward would repeat.
Is this what my life has become?
The secret to being an expert at networking
One day, I finally learned the secret to networking.
I observed how others would effortlessly work the room, have meaningful conversations, and get value from them.
Finally, I figured out what I had been failing to do all this time.
You see, for years I looked at networking with the goal of meeting people who could help me.
- How can I get more clients for my business?
- How can I get a new job?
- How can I meet people who will help me achieve my goals?
When it came to networking, I was only focused on one person: me.
I didn’t think much at all about how I could help others.
Zig Ziglar, the most famous sales professional and motivational speaker of all-time, has a quote that I live by:
You can have everything you in life you want,
if you will just help enough other people get what they want.
This mindset can be applied perfectly to networking as well.
Instead of looking at networking as how others can help you, try looking at networking as your opportunity to help others…which will result in helping yourself!
This simple tweak in my thinking made me do what I thought was impossible: I actually now enjoy networking.
If you think about your own networking experiences, how many times have you met someone who could benefit you directly (as a new customer, employer, etc.)?
Now think about how often you’ve met people who could benefit from what you offer, either through your own knowledge or the people you know.
I’ll bet that most of you have encountered more people who could use your help than people who could directly benefit you.
However, like Zig said, if you help others get what they want, then that will ultimately work to your benefit.
Afterall, most people like to help those who help them.
And this is why networking is such a powerful tool that is commonly misused by people, including myself, who have no idea how to use it effectively.
So is networking still awkward?
Sure, it’s still kind of awkward to network.
But the good news: it’s awkward for everybody!
So everyone is riding in the same awkward boat.
Now I no longer hate networking and will usually go into an event with a better attitude and mindset than I used to.
If you find yourself dreading the act of putting on a name tag, walking into a roomful of random people, and striking up a conversation about goals and dreams, then follow these powerful networking secrets and you’ll be one step ahead of everyone else in The Game:
5. Have a goal before stepping into the room
Before going to the event, make a plan of goals and takeaways from the event, such as:
- Make 5 new LinkedIn contacts (more about LinkedIn later)
- Gain more knowledge on how to start a business
- Learn how small business owners are using social media to grow their business
Some networking events publish online their attendee list in the days leading up to the event.
It’s a good idea to take a peek at this and see if you recognize any names or companies who will be in attendance, then do online research and find topics of conversation to bring up when you meet them face to face.
If you have no idea who will be at the networking event, then just keep a manageable goal in mind of what you are hoping to get out of the event, such as:
- Are you looking to change careers?
- Do you want to get more prospective clients?
- Are you looking for more industry contacts?
- Do you want to provide solutions to other people’s problems?
Think about these questions and make it your goal to get them answered by the time you’re walking out of the event.
Just remember to go in there with the mindset that you are offering your help to others, which leads to them helping you.
You’ll approach the event with more excitement and purpose, as opposed to simply having a chance to load up on cheese and free pens.
4. Bring business cards
Contrary to popular opinion, business cards are not dead. In fact, they’re more important than ever.
Make sure you bring plenty of business cards with you and consider investing in a nice carrying case or wallet so they don’t get stained or bent:
I’ve previously ordered very high quality business cards for a low price with free shipping from MOO.com:
If you don’t have business cards, then at least bring a pen so you can write your contact info on the back of business cards of the people you meet.
3. Hit the buffet and grab a drink (but go easy on the booze)
If your networking event has a bar and food, then grab a beverage and something to eat.
Take care of your hunger first, so you can focus the rest of your time and energy on achieving the goals you set prior to the event.
Plus, the buffet is a good “homebase” to stand, since almost everyone will be visiting it at least once during the evening.
If you drink alcohol, then remember to not overdo it.
Some people may try to mask their social anxiety by getting intoxicated.
But remember that you are trying to make a good first impression on potential customers, business partners, or employers.
This networking event is your chance to improve your business and create the future you want to have.
Another good tip is to always keep your right hand free, since this is the hand you will be shaking hands with people you meet.
If you have a plate of food, remember to grab napkins and use a fork.
Nobody wants to shake hands with you and get BBQ sauce all over their fingers.
Also, bring mints.
And dental floss.
I find it’s better to have these things and not need them then to need them and not have them.
2. Jump right into conversations
You might find yourself awkwardly standing by yourself to the side with nobody to talk to.
Don’t be this person.
Find a group and make your way in there.
Or find someone else standing by themselves and make your way over there.
Afterall, it’s a networking event, and this is the norm. People want to talk to others at these things.
Wait for a lull in the conversation or for somebody to turn to you, and introduce yourself.
If you are standing next to somebody you don’t know, extend your hand and say something like:
“Hi, how are you doing? I’m (state your name). How did you hear about this event? What brings you here?”
Avoid asking right off the bat “So, what do you do?” since this is rather impersonal and does not make a great first impression.
Here are some of my other favorite ice breaker questions to use when first meeting someone at a networking event:
- What’s your connection to [the name of the person or organization running the event]?
- Have you been to these events before?
- How are you liking the [whatever dish they might be chomping on]?
- What a great place. Did you travel far to get here?
Remember, people like talking about themselves, so give them a chance to do that rather than just blabbering on and on about what you do.
Networking is a two-way street, and you’ll learn more by listening to others than just talking about the things you already know.
1. Ask for their business card, then follow up online
When you get their business card, you may want to make a note or two on it from a significant point about the conversation.
When you get home later that evening, use the contact information found on their business card to look them up on LinkedIn then invite them to connect.
A helpful LinkedIn tip
When sending an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, don’t be lazy and just use the super lame “I’d like to add you to my network on LinkedIn” default message.
Instead, mention something about the contact, such as a common acquaintance or a snippet from the conversation you had, and craft that into your message to connect.
Putting some thoughtfulness and personalizing the message will make you stand out from other connection requests and help your new pal remember you in a more positive light.
Let’s face it. Networking can be super awkward, especially if you are going into it solely with the mindset of just wanting to meet folks who can benefit you, rather than you benefiting them.
If you walk into a networking event with the sole purpose of only getting something for yourself, then you will walk away disappointed every time.
That’s because chances are very slim that you’ll meet anyone at a networking event who will be able to help you get ahead in your career.
However, the chances of being able to help others with your knowledge and experience are infinitely higher.
Doesn’t it make sense to play the odds, offer your help, and then see what you can get in return?
Adopting this new attitude about networking will help you become more comfortable when talking to people.
Offer your expertise and knowledge to others, and you’ll quickly build a huge network of invaluable connections who are willing to return the favor when you need it.
Do you like networking?
Do you attend networking events regularly?
Please share your best networking tips and advice with others by leaving a comment below.
James K. Kim
James "Jim" Kim is a commercial real estate agent with Cushman & Wakefield / Pyramid Brokerage Company in the Capital Region of New York, specializing in retail, office, and industrial tenant and landlord representation.