Networking events come in all shapes and sizes: massive multipurpose career fairs for college students, industry-specific conferences, launch parties, etc. The sheer variety can make attending these events befuddling. What do you wear to a book launch, and is it the same as what you wear to an alumni mixer? Should I bring business cards to a party? Who do I talk to at career fairs?
I won’t deny for a minute that how you behave at a networking event depends on a lot of variables — e.g., what kind of event is it, what industry are you in, what kind of job you are looking for, what kind of connections do you want to make, and so on. What I will say, though, is this: despite the specifics of each and every networking event, there are a few universal guidelines to keep in mind so that you can make the most of any networking opportunity, no matter what it is.
Make a Plan
You can’t just wing it when it comes to networking events. Those who go in blind and unprepared are simply wasting their time and the time of those they try to connect with.
You need to know why you’re there — why you’ve decided to attend this event in the first place. Are you looking for some new connections? Are you looking to land a specific job? Is there a certain person you want to talk to? Identify your goal before you even decided to attend an event. If you can’t give yourself a solid, definable objective for attending a certain event, that means you probably shouldn’t go in the first place.
Once you know why you’re going, you need to make plans for what you’ll do to accomplish your goal while at the event. For example, if you want to meet a specific person, how are you going to do that? If you’re just there to make some general connections in an industry, how are you going to do that?
As part of your planning, you need to research the event thoroughly. Who is holding it, and why? Are there speakers? If so, who are they? What will they be able to talk about? What kind of people are invited?
There are a lot of questions you need to answer before you head to a networking event, but if you take the time to answer them, you’ll ensure that you make the most the event, whatever it is.
Know How to Talk to People
Networking, at its core, is simply a process of building new relationships with strangers. This can be daunting: how to you saunter up to someone you’ve never met before and strike up a conversation?
This is why you need to come prepared with ways to start conversations. Forbes contributor Kristi Hedges details six icebreakers for networking events. Take a look at Hedges’ list to learn what icebreakers might look like in a professional setting. You may find that some of her suggestions work well for you, or you may find you need to tweak them, or you may simply want to come up with a few of your own.
Whatever the case, the gist of “knowing how to talk to people” is having a strategy to get the conversation flowing. Remember, too, that it is conversation you after, not a one-sided gabfest on your part. For that reason, your ice-breaking strategies should always be designed to get the other person talking, not simply listening to you babble.
Let me stress it again: networking is about building relationships. You cannot rush into a networking event like a take-no-prisoners mercenary, hitting targets who can do something for you. You need to remember that relationships should be mutually beneficial. Ask not simply what other people can do for you, but also consider what you can do for them.
Part of being considerate also means that you need to treat your fellow attendees as people who are worthy of your time. You may be attending an event to look for recruiters or talk to a specific speaker/presenter/what-have-you, but you never know what sort of relationships might form between you and the other attendees. Be open to them and actively pursue them. They may not be your main objective, but they could pay off big time.
Of course, considerate people don’t hog the attention of others. Remember that the people you’re networking with aren’t there to talk to you all night. Don’t monopolize their time. Build relationships, but don’t keep others from building their own as well.
You’ve handed out business cards, contact info, resumes, etc. Now you wait, right?
Wrong. So totally wrong.
Your new connections should not have to shoulder the entire burden of maintaining your relationship. Depending on the context, sending a LinkedIn connection, writing a follow-up email, or making a phone call to schedule a meeting could be exactly what you need to turn your new connection into a strong, lasting relationship.
If you attended a career fair or similar event and connected with recruiters and company representatives, this advice is especially vital. You weren’t the only person who spoke to them about job opportunities that day. Don’t become one of the faceless many who handed them resumes — follow up!
Remember, too, that networking events lead to professional relationships, not personal ones. Don’t pester your new connections and don’t overstep your boundaries. Treat your new connections the way you would treat new coworkers.