Beyond Networking 101: The 7 Step Networking Plan To Shine At Your Next Event

“Serendipity always rewards the prepared.” — Katori Hill

There are some things that should be left to chance — finding the right significant other, winning the lottery. When it comes to building the perfect network of contacts, however, it’s better to be strategic. Networking events can be fruitful when it comes to building relationships, particularly when you’ve done your homework and feel confident approaching others. Fortunately, we’ve got a simple 7 step plan that move beyond your networking basics. Get ready to graduate from Networking 101 and ensure you’re ready to leap when serendipity strikes.

Step 1: Prepare for the venue

Different environments call for different approaches to conversation. Knowing in advance if you will be free to mingle versus sitting at an assigned table can help direct the best locations to strike up a conversation, as well as the type of topics to have prepared. For example:

If it’s a bar: The biggest challenge at any network event is drawing out key contacts from clusters. Your best bet at a bar is to stick close to the bar itself, as folks are less likely to cluster when ordering drinks. The close proximity makes it easier to have a one-on-one conversation; plus, commenting on a drink order is an easy conversation starter!

If it’s a speaker or panel discussion: The key to networking at an event with a set agenda is to associate yourself with the topic. A great way to stand out is to come prepared with a question for the panel or speaker. Not only will you learn something you’ve always wanted to know, you’ll leave a great impression!

Step 2: Review the RSVP list

Most likely, you’ve seen this piece of advice before in other networking research. This is because it’s an incredibly important step in making connections. Reviewing the RSVP list is more than confirming the event is worth attending — it helps you craft opening statements.

To begin, look for names that seem familiar, or that you already know are people you’d like to connect with. Once you have a list of 6–10 names, research these individuals through LinkedIn and social networks. Take notes on similarities and items that could be potential opening lines, such as “Hey, I saw that you’re connected to my friend so and so. How do you know each other?” or “I happened across an article you wrote. I’d love to know more about…”

Quick note: If your LinkedIn profile is set to public, anyone you view when signed in will be notified you have viewed their profile. I don’t see this as a negative, since you may pique the individual’s curiosity. Who knows — they may even reach out before the event! If this makes you uncomfortable however, consider changing your profile settings.

Step 3: Determine your goal, then tailor your message

Think of networking as a spoken version of a cover letter. You would never send a cover letter to a company with a rote, one-sentence description of what you do. Instead, you weave a story explaining how your skills, experience and personal characteristics meet the needs of that particular role.

Before your next event, consider how you would answer the question, “What do you do?” Instead of the usual, “I’m the {title} at {company},” try something that speaks to your passion and your plans for the future. An example could be:

  • “I help companies tell compelling stories about their brands that excite consumers.”
  • “I enjoy connecting nonprofits with innovative technology that could assist in expanding their outreach.”
  • “I’m currently in marketing, and am in the process of getting my Adwords certification to expand my skillset.”

Not only will this type of response invite more clarifying questions and open discussions, it sets more clear expectations around the type of work or contacts you’re looking for.

Step 4: Don’t immediately focus on what they do — listen

On the flip side of Step 3, no one else enjoys being asked what they do either. It makes people feel like they’re being whittled down to their profession without taking into account their whole person.
If you’ve done your research (as we suggested in Step 2) , you have the opportunity to connect with folks on a deeper level. This not only makes for more engaging conversation, but increases the likelihood you’ll make an impression.

As explained by the Similarity-Attraction Effect, humans naturally enjoy being around others who share similar beliefs and interests. Once you’ve had an opportunity to engage, ask questions that focus on learning more about what motivates them, their passions, as well as their activities outside of work. Come prepared with a few questions to help begin this type of conversation, such as, “I see you sharing lots of articles about x. What about this topic interests you?” or “Your resume is impressive. Which experience are you most proud of?” Then, listen.

With luck, you’ll have material you can relate to your own experience or interests. The contact will appreciate your effort to step outside of the typical conversation, as well as your desire to connect with them on their passions.

Step 5: Create a list of go-to questions

We’ve talked a lot about preparing for the conversations you want to have, but what about the unplanned, random opportunities to connect? After all, someone you aren’t aware of could also be a fruitful future connection.

Starting and sustaining a conversation from nothing is tricky for everyone, which is why I suggest having a predetermined list of questions that are guaranteed conversation starters. These questions should be open-ended, neutral, and stay away from the taboo (politics, religion, money, etc.).

How did you hear about this event?
What’s your most exciting project at the moment?
What’s the strangest conversation you’ve ever had a networking event?
I’m always on the search for good book recommendations. What are your favorites?

Step 6: Focus on what you can do for them

Networking events can quickly turn into grating affairs if everyone in the room is focused on what others can do for them. If instead you offer ways you can help them, you’ll find you’re quickly the most popular person in the room. A few ideas include offering to connect them with contacts in your network, provide recommendations on resources that could help with a problem (e.g articles, books, etc.), or offering to meet with them in the future to discuss a topic at length.

Step 7: Avoid the awkward business card handoff

Having a conversation with someone can feel strange enough, so handing them a piece of paper like a car salesman can kill the moment. With the number of technology tools available on your phone, consider offering something a little more in line with actions we do everyday. For example, if there is an item you agreed to follow-up on, why not send an email right then and there letting the person know you chatted about this item and you’ll be in touch? You could also connect with them on LinkedIn or follow them on Twitter right as the conversation is wrapping up? To leave them thoroughly impressed, however, dazzle them with your early adopter status by suggesting you shared contact information via Trill cards. By setting up your customized Trill cards in advance, you can easily pick and choose which version to share with a contact, as well as easily make note of what you discussed. New connections will appreciate one less piece of paper to keep track of and you increase the likelihood they’ll remember chatting with you when you follow-up.

To stand out at a networking event takes preparation and poise. Taking the time develop a networking plan, craft your message, create discussion topics, and make sure you have the right tools in hand ensures you come off as confident, engaged and most importantly — interesting.