For those with less-than-extroverted personalities or who are newish to their field, these events are daunting – a sea of people in loose conglomerations of familiarity, a noisy and (depending on how long the event has been open) boisterous crowd, an unwelcoming assemblage of mostly unfamiliar faces, perhaps even some famous folks. But look closely and you’ll also see kindreds – individuals with a plate or a drink, shyly moving around and outside the crowds, looking just like you feel: like they’d rather be anywhere else, thinking when can they reasonably leave.
One of the elements of purposeful networking I described in Part 1 was goal setting. When attending a networking event, make a plan and have some goals. Like any good project plan, these will enable to you spend your time at the event purposefully, and to know when you’re done. I applied this approach at a recent conference.
Before arriving, I prepared by making myself knowledgeable about the who and what of the event. For the who, I reviewed the list of attendees and made note of people I knew and people that I wanted to meet (always with the “give to get” principle in mind). Then I reviewed the agenda, and noted which events I was going to be attending and who the presenters were for those. I didn’t memorize these, but I was familiar enough with them that I felt I could remember names and connections.
For the networking event (officially, the welcome reception), my goals were to meet four people:
- One person from my own/local network (the conference was out of town, but there were a few people from my own city in attendance). This would allow me to connect with a familiar face in an unfamiliar place (benefit to me) and vice versa (benefit to them). We would have some common ground already, so the small talk will be easy.
- One person from outside my local network that I’d met at the conference the previous year. This would be an opportunity to catch-up with someone that I likely didn’t know well, remind them (if necessary) of when we last met, and ask them about something we talked about previously – how is that project they were doing? Did they manage to hire that person they were looking for? Thanks for posting that interesting article about XX. With any luck, this person will be standing with someone from their own network that I don’t yet know, and it will be an opportunity to be introduced and achieve the next goal.
- One person I’ve never met before. If this doesn’t happen with the point above, you have to seek out someone else. Remember, the vast majority of the people in the room are as shy and nervous as you are. While you’re browsing the crudités or waiting in line for a drink, if you see someone else on their own, be the brave one and talk to them. It may take a few tries, but eventually you’ll strike up a conversation with someone, and then you can introduce yourself and find out more about them. Talk to them long enough that you can potentially introduce them to someone else and/or be introduced by them if someone they know joins your conversation. Ideally, this new connection will allow you to achieve the last goal:
- Introduce one person in your network to another person in your network. This is advanced connecting but is where the true value of the network comes from – bringing people together. This introduction can be passive – another person you already know joins your conversation – or (even better) active – in getting to know your new connection, they describe one of their goals that you can help them achieve by introducing them to someone you already know.
At the welcome reception, I was able to achieve all four of these objectives. Right away, I saw someone from my “home” and said hello and chatted briefly about travel to the conference, the accommodations, the sessions we were looking forward to, the status of some work we were both involved in, other people that we were anticipating seeing at the conference. Next, I saw some of the conference organizing team talking together; I knew a few of them, but not all, so at a break in the conversation I said hello to the people I knew, and was introduced to the others. I had different connections with these people – the conference but also shared activities like teaching and mentoring – so the talk was no longer small.
After a while, I moved on to mingle. I walked through the room and around the outside of the main tables and circles. There was a woman standing on her own; she had a hand-written name tag, which I knew meant she was a late-registrant. I went over to her and initially we talked about what we both were in that moment: wallflowers. Although I’d been actively connecting for the past 20 minutes, I was taking a break and found a like-minded person. Turned out, she had only recently moved to Canada and was exploring career options in our field. As luck would have it, I’d just been speaking with someone who was looking for resources in her field, and did she want to meet them? Yes, please! We moved through the crowd to where I’d been talking with connections new and old just a few minutes previously. I introduced my new connection to the one who was looking for resources, and was clear about why I thought they’d be interested in one another. We all chatted for a while, learning about each others backgrounds, experience, needs, and opinions, and established good connections. After a while, I excused myself, and after a few more minutes of mingling…I left. Mission accomplished, in 45 minutes.
Having written all this out, I realize that it sounds cold and predatory – targeting specific types of people to check-off a to-do list, and getting out as quickly as possible. But it is only the how, not the why. Having a plan and a list of goals is a tool to accomplishing purposeful networking, but you still need to ensure that the connections you make are real and meaningful, or they really don’t “count” as connections. And the goal is NOT be to get through this as quickly as possible, but to be efficient and comfortable – while this may not be fun, it shouldn’t be tortuous.
Some other tips:
- Be polite and respectful when stepping up to a group. If you are introducing yourself to a new connection or saying hello to an old one, and they’re already engaged with another group, wait for an opportunity to step up. Don’t interrupt. Also, if the group is already quite familiar with each other or having an active discussion, don’t be offended if you’re not brought into it. Move on.
- Take a break every now and then. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, move out of the crowd and take a moment to regroup. Have something to eat or drink. Catch your breath. Go over your mental list and see what’s left to do. There will be plenty of others doing the same thing. If you can restrain yourself, don’t check your phone – you still want to be open to engaging with others, and being absorbed in your email or messages will discourage others from approaching you.
- Don’t drink or eat too much. Don’t have nothing, but don’t treat the buffet like an all-you-can-eat, or set a low standard for drunken behaviour. This is a networking event, not a party.
- When moving through the crowd, look at name tags (that’s what they’re for). Even if you don’t connect with someone at this event, you may see them again later at the conference and “didn’t I see you at the welcome reception?” is a nice icebreaker for that later conversation.
All of this is active well-digging – building and maintaining your network, keeping it active, and giving it purpose.
In my next post, I’ll give some examples of poor networking approaches, and discuss LinkedIn as a tool for networking.