18 tips for making great contacts – a step-by-step guide to business networking events
When people say “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”, this is incorrect.
It’s not just grammatically incorrect (it’s “whom you know”) – but also a massive over-simplification.
It’s how you apply what you know to who(m) you know. How you build deeper, more meaningful relationships with the people you meet, so that you’re no longer asking strangers for favours, but asking a friend for advice or an opportunity to collaborate.
These relationships can come out of anywhere – and creating and enhancing these relationships in the long term will be the subject of our NEXT article. For now, we’re going to walk you through a step-by-step guide on how to get the most out of networking events, to initiate these relationships.
Before we dive in – these points don’t apply only to official networking events, but can help you in any situation in which you meet new people, whether it’s a concert, an art exhibition, a book signing, a conference or even a friendly, low-key drinks party.
BEFORE THE EVENT
STEP 1 – Research the event itself
Turning up to an event without the faintest idea what it’s about is a guaranteed way to disengaged and disorganised.
If you spend a little time researching in advance – the speakers, the topics being discussed, the music or the art being showcased, etc – this not only helps you create a great first impression when you speak to people for the first time, but also gives you plenty of conversation starters when you need them.
STEP 2 – Plan in advance with whom you want to speak
This will depend on the nature of the event and applies more to the traditional networking opportunities where you have a list of attendees (or ‘delegates’ as they’re sometimes called).
Go through the list and identify the people you would love to meet. Even if you don’t follow your plan exactly, it should direct you so that you get the most out of the event.
And, going back to Step 1, it gives you the opportunity to research those people’s work more specifically. If you have engaging questions for your specific ‘targets’ about their work, they’re much more likely to have a longer conversation with you.
Unless you have a photographic memory, trying to learn details about everyone at the event will be nigh on impossible – so choosing your ‘targets’ will enable you to focus your efforts.
STEP 3 – PREPARE YOUR “SELF-PITCH”
Plan how you will describe yourself in NO MORE THAN 1-2 SENTENCES, in a way that is engaging and interesting, without appearing arrogant.
Consider these two examples:
“Hi, my name’s Tom and I’m a singer songwriter – well, I say that because writing songs is my passion though I also play a lot of pop music at function gigs, though that is also fun because it allows me to play a range of musical styles – and on the side of that I also do a lot of writing…”
“Hi, my name’s Tom and I’m a songwriter, I’ve been doing it for over ten years – it always sounds more glamorous than it is, though I do get to play gigs all over Europe – and I’m now working on a new single”
Invest a lot of time in this, as you will use it again and again and it has a huge impact on how much people will want to talk to you.
You want your pitch to do several things at once:
1) Describe clearly and concisely what you do
2) Make you seem fun, friendly and interesting
3) Create follow-up questions (E.g. “Oh, where was the most exciting place you played?” or “Have you met Beyoncé?”)
STEP 4 – START CONVERSATIONS BEFORE YOU WALK THROUGH THE DOOR
Whether you’re waiting for the list, queueing to drop off your bag at the cloakroom or just hanging about in the lobby, you should initiate conversations with other attendees before you even walk through the door into the actual event.
This is a great little tip as it serves several functions at once:
1) It gets you warmed up so that you’re more prepared to start conversations once you walk through the door
2) You can enter with someone you already know, creating the impression that you are sociable and well-connected yourself
3) The more people you know once you’re in the room, the more conversation opportunities you can create, by introducing them to other people
Do this in a very non-committal way – don’t start pitching yourself or talking business, just have a friendly, low-key conversation to get the ball rolling.
STEP 5 – DRESS APPROPRIATELY
This obviously depends on the nature of the event, though most official networking events will have a smart-casual dress code (e.g. guys, you can wear a collared shirt with jeans, to look like you’ve made some effort without being overdressed).
Depending on your field, you might need to put more thought into your outfit – for example, if you’re an artist or designer, your outfit is one of the ways you will convey your “brand”, as people will judge your art or design based on your fashion style. You’ll want to do this in a reasonably subtle way – no one likes an attention seeking peacock strutting around the room – though again, this depends on the nuances of the event.
DURING THE EVENT
Now we can get into the body of the guide – what to do (and not to do!) when you are at the event itself.
STEP 6 – USE YOUR TIME EFFICIENTLY
This comprises several smaller bits of advice:
1) Don’t rush to speak to the first person you come across. Remember your planning and research, take a few moments to get your bearings and approach the right people. This can be the difference between a VERY successful networking event and a complete waste of time.
2) Don’t spend too much time speaking to one person. Again, this is a question of judgment – if you happen across Sir Alan Sugar at a networking event (what events do YOU go to?) maybe take all the time you can with him. See STEP 15 for tips on how to end a conversation politely
STEP 7 – LOCATE THE PEOPLE YOU WANT TO SPEAK WITH
If you don’t already know who those people are, start with the organisers. They’re often the most connected people there (they do work in networking and events after all) and could even point you in the right direction if you ask them directly whom they think you should meet.
STEP 8 – TRY TO MOVE AWAY FROM THE MAIN SPACES TO THE LESS CROWDED AREAS
Often, the “cooler” people at these events – the CEOs of large companies, the editors of online magazines – will hang out in the less crowded areas. Look for the more chill places on the perimeter; the terrace or smoking area can be gold dust for meeting great contacts.
STEP 9 – CATCH PEOPLE’S EYE AND SMILE
If you see one of the people you want to meet, even if they’re already in a conversation with someone else you should try to catch their eye and smile. They will know of your existence and it will make it easier to approach them when they’re less busy.
Based on their reaction – e.g. if they smile back invitingly – you might even want to join in on their conversation there and then. You can approach them with a polite, non-committal opener like “mind if I join you, what you’re talking about sounds really interesting?”. Do not jump into your introductory self-pitch but wait for an organic opportunity to introduce yourself (e.g. when they ask what you do).
STEP 10 – SHAKE THEIR HAND WHEN YOU INTRODUCE YOURSELF
Always shake someone’s hand when you introduce yourself (unless they quite clearly have a broken wrist…) – shake firmly and look them in the eye. Again, don’t jump straight into your self-pitch but wait for the natural moment – it will be obvious when it arrives.
STEP 11 – ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS
This is so important that we have a separate article on this topic alone.
People love talking about themselves. If you can ask them engaging questions about their work or life, they will warm to you and open up more quickly. Don’t worry that you haven’t talked about yourself yet – your chance will come and they’ll be more interested in your answers when it does.
STEP 12 – LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO INTRODUCE OTHER PEOPLE INTO YOUR GROUP
This is where meeting people in the lobby or the lift or anywhere before the event can pay dividends. As soon as you are introducing other people, you are in a position of power – you are a “connector”. People will want to meet you because they are attracted to your confidence and social skills.
STEP 13 – EXCHANGE BUSINESS CARDS
Make sure your business card contact details are correct and up-to-date. Similarly, your website should be professional and up-to-date.
When someone hands you their business card, don’t thrust it into your pocket – it’s an extension of them and this could be disrespectful. Look at both sides of the card and keep it in your hand until your conversation is finished, when you can neatly slip it into your wallet or pocket.
STEP 14 – ASK PEOPLE HOW BEST YOU CAN CONNECT WITH THEM
It’s great to build your network online, whatever your main channel is. For many professionals this will often be LinkedIn, though if you’re a writer or comedian it might be Twitter, or for musicians and photographers it might be Instagram.
STEP 15 – LEAVE CONVERSATIONS WHEN YOU’RE READY
Everyone is there to meet as many interesting people as possible, so don’t feel guilty breaking off a conversation when you feel ready. You can have plenty of time after the event to reconnect if that’s what you want.
Make a polite excuse (going to get another drink or head to the toilet) and when you come back, head in a different direction.
STEP 16 – BE FRIENDLY AND POLITE, NOT ARROGANT
Do not think that by acting like the coolest person in the room, everyone will gravitate towards you like some modern day Andy Warhol. Being arrogant will only put people off.
Also, don’t drink too much. A little alcohol as a social lubricant is fine but don’t overdo it and embarrass yourself.
AFTER THE EVENT
STEP 17 – THANK THE ORGANISERS
Whether you do this at the event or afterwards by email is up to you, but make sure you thank them and tell them why you found it useful.
As I said before, the organisers are often the best connected people in the room, and so staying in touch with them can be invaluable.
You get extra bonus points for useful feedback – e.g. things you think they could try to enhance the experience for attendees (“Have you thought about doing X…?”)
STEP 18 – MESSAGE THE PEOPLE YOU MET AT THE EVENT
Remember to connect with the people you met and thank them for their time / tell them that you enjoyed meeting them.
You have (hopefully) now initiated some interesting new relationships and feel super confident.
But this is only the beginning – networking is only as useful as the effort you put into maintaining and growing these new relationships.
For that, we have a whole other article…
As always, thanks for reading and please leave a comment below! Have you been to a networking event recently and found your own winning formula?