Networking results come from quality relationships. When you’re working the room at a networking function, your goal should be to engage in meaningful conversations and build relationships, not just participate in small talk and amass business cards.
Think just as carefully about the cards you’ve giving out. Refrain from handing out your business card to anyone and everyone by shoving it in people’s hands (I’ve even had people tuck their cards into my jacket pocket!).
Set a target for how many new people you’d like to meet, perhaps six to eight. In those first few important minutes with a new person, focus on a strong handshake, solid eye contact, and a genuine smile. Good opening questions include:
“Why are you here today? What are you looking for from this networking opportunity?”
The more networking you do, the better you’ll become at reading other people and making them feel comfortable. Many people feel nervous in these settings. Look for the person standing alone and approach them, rather than walking up to a group.
Be open and friendly, and ask questions to encourage the person to talk about themselves. Listen closely, nod, and gesticulate to show that you’re interested.
As you listen, look for opportunities to help the other person – always give before you ask for anything in return. Trust and respect come with time, as someone slowly gets to know you, sees that you have something of value, and experiences that you are a person of your word.
That’s also why you shouldn’t ignore the people at the event who you already know. These conversations may not be as formal or as long, just reconnect and ask how things are going, congratulate them on a recent accomplishment, or comment on something else you have in common.
If you can, eat before you arrive so you don’t have to worry about messy food or holding too many things while you’re trying to shake people’s hands. Take a beverage break when you need one, but be sure not to overindulge in alcohol. This is not a party! Maintain your poise and professionalism throughout.
As you work the room, try and give each person equal time – and your full attention – even though they may not be of interest to you. You just never know who could be a referral for you in the future. End each conversation in a way that makes the other person feel heard and valued, e.g., “Thank you for talking with me,” “I admire what you’re doing with…” or “Good luck with …”
The relationships you build by networking can fuel your professional success for years to come.