Large-scale networking events can help you bolster your Rolodex and make connections that can land you a wealth of new contacts, connections and clients.
Coming across as both professional and engaging to those new contacts, however, isn't as simple as it may seem.
"It takes about 200 times the information to undo a first impression than it takes to make one," said Devora Zack, author of "Networking for People Who Hate Networking," and president of Only Connect Consulting, a career consulting firm in Washington. Landing new clients or investors at an event requires more than just a pulled-together pitch and some original ideas.
It might seem like a lot of pressure, but remembering the things you shouldn't do may help make networking a bit easier. Here are seven of networking's biggest no-no's:
1. Don't arrive late. To make things easier on yourself, time your arrival so you can maximize the interactions you're most interested in having.
"Especially for people who typically shy away from networking, the inclination is to arrive on the later side," Zack said. "The opposite is a much better strategy. Being the first person there, it's calmer, laid back, and people haven't yet settled into groups. You won't feel like there's no one to talk to."
2. Don't just stand there. This is not the time to wait around for people to approach you. You need to work the room – even if you're on the shy side. There are ways to step outside your comfort zone and avoid awkwardness.
Start off by asking questions, Zack suggests. And don't worry about impressing the person you're speaking with – just act naturally.
"Many people think they're bad at networking," she said. The key is to work with, rather than fight against, your natural communication style. That way, "what were liabilities become your greatest strengths," she said.
3. Don't feel like you need to talk to everyone. As a budding business owner or executive, you might enter a networking event with a "more the merrier" mentality when it comes to making new connections. However, it might be advantageous to take a "less is more" stance instead.
"It's better to meet fewer people and create a deeper, lasting connection than simply talking to everyone in the room," Zack said.
Instead of going to a networking event and grabbing 40 business cards in two hours, speak with fewer people for a longer period of time. Give each person you talk to at least five minutes to get to know you – and you them – before you move on, she advises. This way, you'll leave networking events energized by new, true connections rather than tuckered out from meeting too many people.
4. Don't come unprepared. Once a new contact tells you what they're specifically looking for in terms of products or services, you need to be ready to tell them how your specific experience lines up with their needs.
Your goal isn't to hard-sell them right then and there – instead, it should be to get them interested in you and what you have to offer. To do that, you need to be prepared with an understanding of what everyone from an investor to a potential client will need, and be armed with the most relevant, useful information to show that you have a solution that works for them.
What's "useful," you ask? Results. "Don't stand there and tell them what you do, tell them what results you get," said business coach Craig Jennings in New York. "Have examples of a situation, a problem and a solution that you can say in two breaths." Also, keep in mind that what an investor might find useful is likely different than what a customer wants to hear – so having a mental catalog of a wealth of your previous experiences will help you fill all kinds of niches.
5. Don't forget the big picture. The bottom line is that, once you leave a networking event, you want the contacts and connections you've made to follow up with you and your services in the future.
"You should know your production and delivery capabilities, and be able to set a realistic expectation for potential customers," said Frank Dadah, general manager of financial contracts with Winter Wyman, a Boston staffing firm. You're trying to maintain the image of your company, and if you're not prepared to answer detailed questions that cover the ins and outs of what you have to offer, or if you can't offer it to them in a timely manner, they'll move on – fast – to someone who can.
6. Don't try to multi-task. Within the first few minutes of meeting someone new, you probably don't whip out a notebook to write down what they're saying—and that should be a rule for networking events, as well. Instead of being distracted by a pen and paper, focus intently on the conversation you're having. After you've grabbed a business card and stepped away, jot down a few things that will help you jog your memory when you follow up with them later.
7. Don't forget to follow up. "If you're not following up, you're not networking," Zack said. "You should stay in touch, without thinking about what you'll get out of the relationship."
Within 48 hours of your first meeting, you should e-mail a note that pinpoints the most important parts of your earlier conversation, so your contact remembers who you are specifically. A timely turnaround will show that you're both interested and available to continue the conversation.
"Send them a link to a project you discussed, or ask them how the game they were going to that night ended up," Zack said. "Give them something that is useful to them."
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