5 Tips For Mastering Networking Events
Networking can suck. The expectations to be interesting, the table of food that you have to pretend to not want to eat from, the smiles and handshakes all with prepared elevator speeches, and the awkward knowledge that everyone in the room is there for the same thing. It’s like going to a bar, knowing that everyone there is going to sell themselves as someone you should sleep with(oh wait.) Networking is a lot of trouble and sometimes you might be able to convince yourself that another couple episodes of Westworld are more worth it. But networking can only help you in the long run. At the least, you walk away with a few new stories and some extra conversational practice. At best, you might have made a couple new friends or found a new job prospect. In fact, networking is so valuable to me that I have put together some important lessons that I follow at every event I attend. So put on that sort-of-business-casual outfit, adjust your hair, check your breath, and follow these steps at your next networking event.
- Remember that every doorway is a path to new opportunity.
This might sound cliche but it has saved me from countless “opt-out” mistakes throughout my life. Oftentimes, when a big event is about to happen outside my comfort zone, there is a little voice in my head that raises its plea. “It’s not worth it.” “What about that other thing that’s more important?” “You’ll probably do something dumb, anyway.” This is the voice of social anxiety and I learned to overcome it from Temple Grandin. Temple Grandin is a famous self-advocate and professor of Animal Science. She lives with autism and used to be terrified of going through doorways. But, through self-coaching and repetition, she was able to convince herself that it isn’t about the doorway but what’s on the other side. Overcome the urge to opt-out and get yourself through that door.
2. Once you’ve made it through, don’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.
This is a mistake I used to make all the time. Sometimes, the doorway is much harder to get through than we realize. Maybe it is a major event for a company you’ve been wanting to join for a long time. Maybe you’ve been off your game all day and the last thing you want to do is talk to people. Sometimes, after a long day of work, I lose the charm and smiles. It is easy to consider a networking event as an afterthought that doesn’t require the same amount of effort the rest of your day expected of you.
But the truth is that every networking event possesses the possibility of something greater than you will encounter the rest of that year.
One of the Executive Directors of Ernst and Young spoke at a leadership conference I attended. He told the story of his path to becoming a lawyer. He mentioned that he moved to NYC on a whim with zero money and nowhere to live. He would shower in lobby bathrooms and sleep on benches. He made extra money selling papers and, in his spare time, go to interviews. He said that after 6 months, he had found a job. He believed that the hard part was over. He had overcome the obstacle of getting in the doorway and now he could stride in with his hands in the air like a runner at the finish line.
This was his biggest mistake. His feeling of “arrival” got him into more trouble than anything else. Once he got the job, that was when the real work started. That was when the real test of integrity and ability began. After learning this lesson, he committed that he would never allow himself the feeling that he had arrived again. Once in the door, it is time to go to work.
3. You are now the least interesting person there.
This may not be true but it is something that you should make true. I don’t mean you should tell boring stories or refuse to comment on something someone asks you. But everyone is there trying to sell themselves and that is what every employer or potential client expects. So do the opposite. Ask questions, be interested, and invest in getting to know the people in that room. The secret to networking is that it matters more what happens after the event than during. It is your job to get to know people, have fun, and learn about everyone there. If you get their contact info, great, but do not make this your primary goal. Except for…
4. Engage the speaker.
A lot of events have a main speaker. This is usually the most important person in the room. They were selected by the hosts of the event to impart words of wisdom, signaling that they possess value beyond anyone else there. If there is an opportunity to ask questions, do it. If you don’t think you have a question after the end of their speech, then you weren’t really listening. I will say this again — if you do not think you have a question after anyone’s speech, then you weren’t really listening. After the speech, go and talk to them. But don’t waste their time. Thank them for an amazing speech, for answering your question, and ask for their business card. This is key. This has literally changed my experience at networking events for the better 100%. What you do with that business card will matter more than anything you’ve done in that room.
5. Follow up.
You have their card so you have their email. Do not wait. Once you arrive home, sit down and write out an email thanking the speaker for their time. (pro tip: write a handwritten letter and mail it to them) Mention specifics about their speech and mention what you appreciated about their response to your question. Offer up any assistance that you might be to them and wish them well. Do not ask for anything from them. Repeat this with any other person you may have received a card from. This is the most important part of the networking event. No matter what you said or did in that room, none of it matters if you don’t take charge of what happens after.
An example of this was at a leadership conference I attended in college. The keynote speaker was the Vice-Provost of our school and Director of Global Affairs. After he spoke, I immediately went to get his card and messaged him that night. From that point forward he remembered my name at all the following events at the conference. Later on, he became a good friend and an advocate for my future plans. He invited me to other important networking events, helped me with big life decisions, and wrote me a couple recommendation letters. The Vice-Provost and Director of Global Affairs wrote me recommendation letters. That connection began with an email expressing my gratitude for his time and appreciation of who he was.
Always follow up.
If you can follow all of these steps, the next networking event you attend is guaranteed to be a better experience. I am not advocating for you to use these tips like tricks or to pretend just for the sake of getting ahead. That always-hungry attitude will be found out eventually and it can leave a terrible impression. The most important thing you can do before attending a networking event is to remind yourself that, if nothing else, you are entering into a room full of potential new best friends and future world changers worth getting to know. If you go into a networking event with that frame of mind, you will completely redefine the value of each and every new opportunity you enter into.