07.13.2016

By Scott Thornburg

“Networking” may be the one word that business communicators both love and hate with equal passion. It can drain the energy from even the most extroverted, yet maintaining and growing a network should be a top priority for all business professionals.

A large, diverse and engaged group of peers is the key to finding and recruiting top talent, attracting and winning the best business deals, gaining access to better job opportunities, and staying in the know about industry changes. More than anything else, networking is the best way to expand your “echo chamber.”

Here are a few things you can do to maximize even the most draining events:

Be strategic about which events you attend. Generally speaking, events organized by larger professional organizations—like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)—usually provide better opportunities as they involve more planning and have a regular cadence with a dedicated membership. Other niche groups—like industry-themed Meetups—can also be incredibly beneficial. Whichever event you choose, do your research in advance to ensure it’s the right one for you.

Promote your attendance. I find that when I tweet about going to an event with the right hashtags, I’m getting on the right people’s radar and networking before the event even begins. I can then find those people that retweeted me at the event and say hello in a relevant way. It you live tweet, that’s another way to engage if you’re shy.

Set goals for the event. If you know the purpose of why you’re going, it makes getting there much easier. Then set goals, such as “Walk away with at least one good lead” or “Get at least three business cards from people you can follow up with.” You don’t have to write them down, but you’ll feel more productive—and less like you wasted your time—if you set and meet your goals. Come with expectations about what you’d like to get out of the event.

Know what you bring to the table. Is your company hiring? Are there positions that are historically difficult to fill? Do you know of other opportunities? Think less about what you will get out of the event and more about what you bring to the table—how can you help others achieve their goals? Be a connector and provide value before you ask for anything.

Know what you’re looking for. If your company is hiring, know that. If you are looking for new leads, know what kind of leads you’re looking for and how to qualify them. Knowing what you’re looking for will help you to determine how much time and energy to spend with each person you meet. That said, keep in mind that the people you meet may not be the ones you need, but they might be able to connect you to the right people. Be patient with others and with yourself knowing that everyone is at a different stage of growth. Learn to identify where a person is in their journey and determine if the conversation is mutually beneficial.

Know your 30-second commercial. It’s a networking event and you will be meeting new people. They’re going to ask you about your career and you want to put your best foot forward, so be sure you know how to talk about what you do. Better, be sure you know how to talk about what you’re looking for—that will help you to qualify any new leads or potential job candidates.

Be a wingman/wing-woman. If you’re trying to introduce your company, one of the best ways to showcase its expertise is to brag about your colleagues. I find introductions to be the perfect way to set up your colleagues and it immediately gives you an edge up in the conversation. “John, this is my coworker XYZ. She’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever met and I’m lucky enough to work with her.” Another perk of bringing a friend is that you can divide and conquer.

Be comfortable talking to strangers. You rarely meet new people within existing social circles. In order to meet new people, you need to comfortable starting conversations with new people. Don’t force your way into an existing conversation, but rather look for additional opportunities to start new conversations. For example, I typically start conversations with people while waiting in line for food/drinks or at registration. If you see anyone standing alone, that is your cue to introduce yourself. If you want to join an existing conversation, do so carefully. Be mindful to the conversation topic at hand and see if you can add something relevant, or wait for someone to acknowledge you—you don’t want to rudely interrupt or join into a private conversation. For example, an easy way to break into a conversation is to “say hello” to an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while. Say something like, “Sorry, don’t want to interrupt, just wanted to say hello—it’s been a while!” Most people would pause to say hello, thereby giving you an opportunity to join the conversation. You then introduce yourself to the third party.

Ask questions. There’s nothing people love talking about more than themselves. Ask them questions about what they do, where they’re from, how they ended up in their current position, what brought them out to the event, etc. If you want to truly create a connection with someone, delve deeper. Ask more complex questions to keep the conversation moving in the direction you want it to go.

Keep your cards, but take theirs. This was the first sales tip I ever heard. Don’t give someone your business card—take theirs. Why? Because you will follow up, but they might not. If you can, jot down a note about the conversation on the back of their card so you can mention it when you follow up. Also, sometimes I only bring a handful of cards with me. Limiting the number of cards I have available makes me more strategic/discerning in who I give cards to. If you run out, you can always jot down their name/email and find them on LinkedIn—that’s what you’re going to do with their business card anyway (hopefully).

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