The Dreaded Networking Event: Go Pro
A few years back, I learned that some of my colleagues at FrogDog weren't going to networking events because they felt intimidated by them. After all, it's a little awkward to walk into a sea of strangers at a bar or restaurant and try to talk business.
I get that. As I've said elsewhere, I'm naturally an introvert. Yet as it's my responsibility in my work roles to be visible and to sell, networking events are a necessity. I still have to work up my "game face" to attend them, but they aren't intimidating anymore. I've got the routine down pat.
Before You Go
Develop a specific purpose for the event. What kind of event is it? What kind of person is likely to be there? Is there something you would like to gain from this particular group? Is your company looking for new employees? Do you have a business question you need answered? Are you trying to build your understanding of the industry? Are you looking to meet people with specific job titles?
Figure out your purpose, and stick to it. Approach the networking event as you would approach asking someone for referrals.
When You Get There
Walk into the room and quickly scan it to see who you know. People you know will welcome you into their conversations and introduce you to the people they know. This is the easiest way to break into an event.
Don't know anyone? No sweat. Go to the food or the bar area. (Every networking event has one. If it doesn't, it probably has a trade show element or even a silent auction.) Strike up a conversation about the food or the venue with someone else standing there. A person in line at the bar or dishing up food isn't likely to be talking to anyone else at the moment, so you aren't breaking into a group of strangers' conversation. Even better, you have something noncontroversial in front of you to break the ice. ("Wow, great spread for a networking event!")
Don't corner anyone. You're not going to sell anyone anything at a networking event. Talk enough to understand what a person does and his agenda and to communicate what you do and your agenda. If there's a reason to talk further, tell him you'd like a card so that you can connect later.
Even if one of your closest friends is there, don't hang out with her. She's there to work, too. Say hello, ask for introductions to anyone she thinks you should meet, and move on. Catch up some other time.
(We've all had someone monopolize our time at an event. When this happens, I've used these parting words: "Well, I know we're both here to mix and mingle! Better get to it. Good to see you!")
Not having in-depth conversations with anyone doesn't translate to asking every person you greet for a business card. (We've all had this done to us. It's super annoying. "They don’t know anything about me. What are they going to do with my contact information? Spam me? Great.") Only exchange cards with people you've talked with enough to cover each of your agendas.
Get Outta There
I generally consider my work done at a networking event when I've had five solid—albeit still brief—conversations and briefly greeted everyone in the room that I knew. Don't feel that you need to linger long at these events. Stay a short time and stay focused on your agenda. You'll be fresher for each conversation as a result, and networking events won't feel like such a chore.
Oh, and you don't need to say goodbye to anyone. It isn't a cocktail party in which you need to greet and thank the host.
After the event, send an e-mail to everyone from whom you got a card to say that you enjoyed connecting and hope to stay in touch. If there's a reason for a follow-up conversation, request it in your e-mail. If not, do stay in touch. Your network will become one of your greatest assets as your career progresses.