I am not a networking expert but through the hard yards of personal experience I learned how to get the most from networking events when I was a recruiter.
In this day and age with the accompanying vast amounts of free information available via the internet, it frequently surprises me how unprepared most recruiters appear to be, for live networking events.
There are many opportunities to network online and maybe that abundance causes recruiters to be less prepared for live events.
Here's what I have learned, mostly the hard way, over the past 22 years:
- Arrive early and scan the name tags: Almost all networking events have a table at the entrance with name tags in alphabetical (or some other logical) order, facing the guests as they arrive. Predictably, the person's employer will be printed below their name.
By arriving early you have an opportunity to peruse the name tags before they are taken. You can establish which people would be the most useful for you to meet, or avoid.
- Start with a soft drink (or two): It's very tempting, especially with an evening event in summer, to grab a cold beer or champagne first. After a long day recruiting the first drink slips down in under five minutes and before you know it, you are on your second (as you have arrived before the crowds, the drink waiters are especially attentive to you).
It's easy to be onto your third drink by the time the people you are keen to network with arrive. As these people haven't met you before, an alcohol-influenced introduction is unlikely to help your cause.
- Use people's names: Nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie wrote in his seminal book How to Win Friends & Influence People, ‘... that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language'.
Have you noticed how reluctant most people are to use the names of people they have just met? If you do the opposite you will stand out for the right reasons. It's another advantage of getting to the venue early - you can be more confident with using the names of people because you have had longer to study them.
- Have a couple of icebreaker topics ready to go: Unprepared networkers fall back on the old chestnuts of ‘what do you do/what is your position?' or ‘are you busy/how's business?' when opening a conversation with somebody new. These questions are very predictable and you miss an opportunity to stand out as being different in the eyes of the person you are talking to.
A question related to the topic or speaker/host of the event is a good place to start. Commenting on political or controversial issues or events is probably unwise as an icebreaker.
- Initiate others joining your group: Take a leadership role. If you see other people on the periphery of your group, gesture for them to join in. It's good form and it also makes it easier to meet more people and also to more naturally turn your attention away from someone who you have spent enough one-on-one time with.
- Don't mix with your colleagues: Yes, I know it's easy to talk to your mates from work or with your long-term client, but it defeats the whole point of being at the event doesn't it?
- Be of service: A mindset of ‘what can I give' rather than ‘what can I get' will have you stand out from other business card-collecting recruiters.
My goal was always to bring the conversation to a natural point where I could say something like ‘I've read a really good book/article on that topic. I'd be happy to send you a link'. The other person is, 99% of the time, going to say ‘that would be great, here's my card with my email address'. This gives me a great reason to email my new contact the next day. At the very least you can send a personalised LinkedIn connection request.
- Ask a smart question: Almost always after a speaker has finished, there is a few minutes for Q&A. Mostly it takes some coaxing from the MC to elicit a first question from the crowd. Be the person with the first question. Stand up, announce your name and organisation, address the speaker by their first name and then ask a smart question (another reason to minimise your alcohol intake).
The speaker gives you some reflected glory when they use your first name (50/50 chance) in answering the question and with a bit of luck, they might say ‘very good question'. Everybody in the room then knows who you are and that you are there.
- Don't drink the bar dry: Another temptation is to keep drinking, usually because the event price includes all drinks. Don't be tempted.
What do you think of those people who are propping up the bar as the event staff pack up and the room is almost empty? Don't become one of them.
- Write about the event: Blog or Twitter your views about the event and what value you gained from the speaker(s) or from the event as a whole. You can post this on Twitter, on your company's blog, your own blog or on the site of the organisation that organised the event.
- Follow up by telephone and/or LinkedIn connection requests: Inevitably you won't meet all the people you were hoping to during the course of the event. Having arrived early and scanned the name tags, you should know who you missed.
Depending upon what you believe to be the most appropriate approach, either telephone them or send them a LinkedIn connection request. It doesn't matter whether they actually attended or not, the presence of their name tag tells you that they intended to be at the event.
Mention that you noticed their name tag and had hoped to meet them. If they were at the event, they should remember you, because you had asked the first Q&A question.
If they weren't at the event, you have an opportunity to tell them what you found most interesting about the event. If you are sending an email or a LinkedIn request, then also include a URL to your blog/article about the event.
The opportunities and value from a networking event are huge, if you prepare adequately, be proactive at the event and follow up thoroughly.
Don't expect luck to help you out or you will be the one standing alone at the bar at the end of the night.