The Definitive Guide to Networking: Before. During. After.

There’s a reason people, myself included, avoid networking at all costs. It’s painful, awkward, and often fruitless. That is, if you go in without a plan. My last article, ‘How Networking Will Change Your Life (& Drive Your Sales),’ made a broad case for networking – drawing on stats like the fact that 70% of jobs are found through personal connections.

In Part II of this series, we’ll be diving into the juicy stuff; the real-life tips you can utilize before, during and after your event to exponentially grow your network and effectively leverage your best assets.

Before.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

Despite your best efforts, you will likely at some point in your life need to attend a networking event. And whether you’ve been forced by your boss, or you’ve decided that now is the time to finally take control of your career, you’re going to need a plan.

Your night before checklist.

Networking, at its core, is a mental game. If you go in confident and ready, you’ll wow your new contacts and gain the connections you need to push your business to that next level. Read, review, and internalize these points before ever entering the room:

To remember…

1. Everyone in your life – your best friends, your colleagues, your mentor – were all strangers to you before you met them.

2. It is your goal to find out the most interesting thing about each person you talk to. Be fascinated before you’re fascinating.

3. You only have one chance to make a good impression. Conduct yourself with poise and integrity.

To prepare…

1. Lay out an outfit that is professional and sensible, but somewhat unique. You want people to remember you. Even just a bright colored blouse or distinctive tie can serve as a memory-aid.

2. Bring business cards; there’s nothing worse than running out. Or, if you want to experiment with a more unique approach, don’t carry business cards at all and instead immediately connect on LinkedIn.

3. Questions! See below for my best conversation starters.

Don’t draw a blank – arrive with questions.

Even the best conversationalist sometimes encounters awkward silences. And it’s this fear of silence which holds so many back from attending networking nights in the first place. But don’t worry – I’ve got you covered with some of my best go-to conversation starters.

Sample questions:

1. What brought you to this event? Do you go to these types of things often?

  • Are you from the area originally? If no – where are you from and what brought you here?
  • I’m planning a vacation next month – any suggestions?
  • Where did you go to college? What did you study?
  • I’ve heard great things about ‘x company’ – how do you like working there?
  • What’s the work environment like?
  • Have you read anything interesting lately? I’m looking for a good new book.
  • I’m planning a company outing – know any good local spots?
  • Any fun plans this weekend?
  • What kind of businesses or contacts do you target in growing your business?
  • Who are your top prospects? If you can, offer to make an introduction.

If you really draw a blank, compliments are always appreciated, so long as they are genuine.

People love talking about themselves – and the more revealing the information, the stronger the bond you’ll create. According to a seminal Harvard study, “disclosing private information to others can increase interpersonal liking and aid in the formation of new social bonds.” So don’t be afraid to ask questions and to offer positive, encouraging feedback.  

If you’re still daunted, try to re-conceptualize ‘networking’ as ‘helping.’ Even if the prospect of networking seems foreign and forced, the idea of connecting problems with solutions, of helping others reach their full professional potential – that’s something that resonates with everyone.

And most importantly of all: listen, don’t just wait for your turn to talk. Allow the person to fully express themselves before asking follow-up questions. Listening is the fastest route to likeability.

During.

“The man who moves a mountain starts by carrying away small stones.” – Confucius

The key to networking – and the main issue that most advice columns fail to address – is to start small. Set goals that you will not only accomplish, but that you will actually enjoy carrying out.

Don’t try to speak to everyone. Make it your target to have three meaningful conversations, after which you can honestly say that you’ve made some strong connections. At your first event, you might even want to limit this goal to one single conversation.

Do the math. If you go to one networking event every week for a year, and talk to three people at each event, you’ll have 156 new connections by year’s end. Small steps move mountains.

Stick to a strategy.

What you’re really scared of – honestly, it’s what we’re all really scared of – is the unknown. What if no one talks to me? What if I make a fool of myself? What if I’m just awkwardly skulking around the edges of the room, alone and pathetic?

The only way to fight the unknown is with a robust strategy. Turn the evening into something you can predict. Chris Barrat’s TED Talk “Successful Networking Ultimate Guide” offers a great starting point for crafting your personal strategy. If you follow his general guidelines – outlined below – you’ll soon realize that navigating the anxiety-provoking world of networking is not so hard after all.  

Types of groups.

The room will be filled with singles (like you) in addition to some already-gathered groups. These groups will likely be of two or three people – any more and it’s hard to sustain a conversation.

Look for groups that appear receptive to a new member. If all the people in a group are deep in conversation, they are likely not ‘open’ to your intrusion. ‘Open’ groups are usually loosely gathered (think body language – they won’t be standing too close together), casual in topic, and happy to gain another participant.

Who to target.

Best case scenario: you identify and approach an open group of three people, of which at least one is a woman. The thinking behind this – and it’s supported by ample evidence – is that women tend to be better ‘integrators,’ meaning they are happy and willing to help you join the conversation.

If you can’t find this type of group, don’t fret. An ‘open two’ will do just as well if you know how to engage.

How to start.

Approach the group and say ‘hi, may I join you?’ and then be quiet. Allow them to fill the silence, welcome you into the group, and ask you the first question. You’ll quickly get a sense of the dynamic.

To win over your new connections, you’ll need to amp up your likeability. Try to remember these four simple tips:Be present

1. Be genuine

2. Show gratitude

3. Ask open-ended questions (see above for ideas)

Once you’ve successfully integrated into the group, ‘close’ it by using body language to indicate that the group is no longer open to new members. In doing so, you buy yourself time to learn about your new connections and engage in meaningful conversations – the kinds of conversations that lead to an exchange of information, leads, strategy, etc.

If all else fails.

Other singles are the lowest hanging fruit – they are just as desperate as you to find a group. So don’t be shy: go and introduce yourself.

Finally, before you join a group, make sure it’s not about to dismantle. If it is, wait a minute before starting up a conversation with the remaining crew, or move on.

The best advice I can offer.

Since committing to the world of networking, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. No matter how many questions you memorize, current events you research, or strategies you agonize over, you will without a doubt still face the occasional awkward moment. Unless you….

Find or bring a wing(wo)man.

At one of my first networking events in this job, I quickly hit it off with another woman following our realization that we were both in sales and new to networking. I was quite pleased with how the night turned out; I had not only made a meaningful connection, but I had managed to make enough of an impression to receive a second invite – the following week her and I met up at another networking event. But I wasn’t ready for what happened next.

As soon as we met at this second event, the most wonderful thing happened – we became each others’ “wingmen.” Since our businesses were in completely different industries, there was no sense of competition – only comradery.

That night we each ventured off on our own to make new connections. If there wasn’t any “low hanging fruit” or “open threes with a woman,” I’d find my friend and she’d introduce me to her newfound group. I’d return the favor if she was ever in the same situation. It made me feel comfortable knowing that I always had a safety net.

This is all to say, that sometimes the best contacts – and the biggest ROI you’ll get – is not from potential target clients or contacts, but from other people like yourself. These like-minded, similar-careered individuals understand your goals and can offer genuine, valuable introductions to the people who matter most.  

After.

“It is the ‘follow through’ that makes the great difference between ultimate success and failure, because it is so easy to stop.” – Charles Kettering

Without the follow through, everything you’ve done up to this time is pointless. Think about this: 80% of sales require five follow-up phone calls after a meeting in order to land the opportunity. 44% of sales reps give up after just one.

Make sure that your hard work was worth the effort by following these follow-up must-dos:

Take notes, immediately.

The night has just finished – you’ve got a stomach full of nerves and appetizers, and pockets full of business cards. Walk to your car, gather all the business cards you just collected, and write down (either in your phone or with a real pen and paper!) everything you can remember about each of your new contacts. What can you help them with? What’s their wife or husband’s name? Where are they from? Anything helps.

Connect on LinkedIn.

The next morning, add everyone you met as a connection. This will keep your name, experience, and photo at the top of their minds as they review your follow-up email and craft their responses.

Send a follow-up email within 24 hours.

It’s crucial that within a day, you are sending emails to schedule a time to get together. Don’t give your new contacts the opportunity to forget who you are. Send over a formal but gracious email, offering two specific times and dates to catch-up – usually one morning and one lunch meeting time. To make the email memorable and personal, comment on something you discussed at the event.

Importantly, you only want to schedule get-togethers if you think either you or the other person can offer a value-add. If there is no value-add for either of you, simply send an email with your contact information and a thank you for their time.

Create a follow-up email template to make it as easy as possible to keep up with your new contacts!

Become a regular.

At the beginning, it’s important to shop around or “date” various events. But once you find one or two that you really enjoy, you need to commit. There’s nothing worse than that annoying sales person who shows up to an event one time, passes out their cards to every individual, only to entirely disappear, never to be heard from again. People want to know that you’re there to stay.

If you can, take your involvement up a notch by joining the networking event planning committee. This kind of move will work wonders for your reputation.

The case for women.

All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”Chinese proverb

For women in particular, networking can pose a unique challenge; studies show that, in contrast to their male peers, women have trouble forging and sustaining ‘transactional’ relationships.

To make matters worse, even those women who are comfortable with networking often lack the time or ability to attend networking-specific events. With increased family and home obligations, women’s time tends to be in higher demand – which pushes networking to the back of their priority lists. Yet without the support of professional connections and sponsors, it’s nearly impossible to reach the highest ranks of an organization.

This is why it’s especially important for women – even more so than men – to focus their efforts on building out their professional network. The above tips will help to streamline the process, making it as accessible as possible.

I hope I’ve been a helpful guide as you learn the ins and outs of networking, and I would love to chat more about your experience. Get in touch or come say hi at one of our Career Development and Resume Writing workshops – see you there!  

About the author:

Megan Walker
Account Executive

As an Account Executive at Proven Recruiting , Megan is responsible for building long-lasting, trust-based partnerships with growing companies.  

With nearly ten years of business development experience in recruiting, Megan is an expert in sales and strategic partnerships. Specifically, her experience has afforded her a unique insight into client relationships and the value of networking.

Have a question for Megan? Ask her below!