Networking can be a valuable tool in your path to success. If utilized effectively, your ability to turn a stranger into a connection will only benefit you in your professional and personal life.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of professional networking events and always go through the same routine. I prepare in advance what I will say and how I will say it. I know that I am good at my job and can contribute to an adult conversation. I approach the entrance doors with confidence and am excited about the opportunity. I enter the room and am instantly returned back to my first day of high school, walking into a packed cafeteria where I don’t know anybody. I’m overwhelmed and don’t see a single welcoming chair to sit in. The only reasonable solution is to eat outside in the courtyard instead of simply asking someone if I could sit down.
Networking and conversation are essential soft skills that we are not taught as youth and I am making the choice, now, to get better. I’ve developed the following list of activities to focus on.
Get there early:
Although arriving late may seem fashionable; you’ll only be welcomed by a full room of people who have already settled into groups that will be hard to penetrate. It will be loud and chaotic which will only invite you stand lonely in a corner. By arriving early, you’ll be welcomed by a calm and quiet room that is more inviting to new introductions.
It’s easy to attend these events with friends and colleagues; you’ll have a fun evening hanging out with your friends and won’t have to face any awkward introductions. But then what was the point of going? Where is the opportunity for growth? Everyone is going to grow their network so choose to be a part of that. Force yourself outside your comfort zone by going alone and not using your friends as a crutch. If you know you’ll be attending with colleagues, plan on arriving separately and don’t try to arrive at the same time. Simply tell your co-workers “I’ll see you there”.
This is the hardest part for everyone. How do you just walk up to a stranger and start talking? What do you say? What if I just sound like a creep? Just remember that you are not at a bar trying to spark something with that cute guy/girl you saw on the dance floor. This is a professional networking event where everyone is there with the intention of meeting new people but are likely just as uncomfortable as you are. Simply instigate with an easy, relatable question, “May I join you?” or “What brings you to this event?” or just a simple “Hello”.
Now you’ve broken the ice. You’ve made eye contact; you’ve instigated adult communication with a confident smile. Now what? Don’t just say hello and walk away. You’ve got their attention, now it’s time to leave an impression. Your first words are a representation you who you are. I recommend preparing what I call your “3 second pitch”. Simply state your name and who you are representing.
“I’m Kevan Peters with Hy-Grade Precast”
I know it sounds silly, but this statement should be rehearsed. Speak slowly and e-nunc-e-ate your words. These first words should be fluid, clear and confident. As a mumbler, I’m often asked to repeat myself which is not a great start; definitely something for me to work on. After initial introductions, you’re now engaged in a professional conversation; time for phase two, the “10 second pitch”. Define what your company does and what your role is there.
“Hy-Grade is an off-site fabricator of concrete building components for the construction industry. My primary role is Estimator.”
Again, this statement should be rehearsed and the words and message should be intentional. Try not to over complicate your statement with a wordy description full of industry specific terms. Describe your company in layman’s terms that are relatable but never downplay your role. Your company does important work and you play a critical role in their success.
If your conversation “partner” does not offer their own version of the “10 second pitch”; invite them to. Pay attention to their words show them that you are interested. The goal here is to simply find a common ground; start a conversation. Don’t try to sell your product or service. If your industries are unrelated; what about your office location? Where you live? Maybe you both hate networking events. You have something in common; the challenge is to find it.
The easiest way to continue a conversation is to simply listen. Help those around you to feel interesting and special. You are not here to show off so avoid overcompensating by commandeering the discussion. Look people in the eye, repeat their name, listen to what they have to say, and suggest topics that are easy to discuss. Be a conversationalist, not a talker.
Make an effort to stand in a manner that is open and welcoming, rather than blocking people out of your conversation. Also, try to keep your right hand free from holding a drink or food; always ready for hand shake.
Work the room
Remember, again, that everyone is there with the intent to grow their network. Avoid finding one compatible person and committing your whole evening to that person; you’ll only be limiting the value both of you get from the event. Try to find your way around the room meeting new people. Instigate new connections by introducing people to one another that you think are compatible or have something in common. Don’t be afraid to ask to be introduced into a group.
Give each conversation the time it deserves but when your exchange has run its course, simply thank your partner for the conversation and try to compliment them on the positive impression they made on you. Why is complimenting somebody so unique and awkward? Give someone the confidence to move on to their next conversation.
Being confident and charming is not a trait many are born with. Some people have the ability to simply enter a room and, within only a few minutes, are in command of that room. It is common to desire those traits and to try to emulate their actions, but pretending to be someone you’re not will be obvious to everyone and you’ll only appear phony and insincere. Be confident in who you are and take pride in your skills and the value you can bring to a conversation.
Remember that many situations can have the potential to be a networking opportunity without being titled a “networking event”. I encourage everyone to get involved in their professional community. Networking is not only an activity for sales people; we all can benefit from meeting new people and growing our networks. We’ve all heard people getting a job or new opportunity by simply “knowing a guy”. These events are an opportunity for you to potentially meet that person you who will get you a new job, become your mentor, make a big purchase, or whatever you are looking to achieve. Make it a personal goal to attend an upcoming networking event and to develop your skills.
Kevan Peters, C.Tech, Hy-Grade Precast Concrete Ltd. | NEXTNiagara Council Member | NCA Young Leaders Committee Chair