Alright, you are about to go to what could be the most important networking event of your life (except for meeting the inlaws for the first time – that’s way more pressure than this). How should you prepare? What should you talk about? How long are you supposed to stay? What if you don’t know anyone? These are all valid questions that everyone thinks about when they are preparing for a networking event. But don’t worry! We have pulled together 10 strategic tips that will help in the preparation, execution, and follow up for your networking event. If you follow these simple steps, it could be very smooth sailing to your next job interview.
1. Carry a portfolio in your left hand (and shake with your right)
Studies show that you only have 7 seconds after meeting someone to make a great first impression, so no pressure! The most important part of networking is to be perceived as professional as possible, in as little time as possible. To do that, you have to look and act the part. Showing up with a portfolio puts you ahead of everyone else who doesn’t. It allows you to carry copies of your shiny new resume as well as a notebook for jotting down contact information or notes about topics you covered in your discussions. Make sure you invest in a genuine leather portfolio. It’s worth the money and gives off the impression that you are prepared and professional.
2. Wear a watch to keep track of time
While it doesn’t matter what wrist you wear your watch on, make sure it actually works before you go. It is important to pay attention to how long you’re spending talking to each person (but please don’t make it obvious that you keep checking your watch). Make sure you give yourself enough time to have meaningful introductions with several people at the event. However, if the conversation is going really well with someone, gauge whether the person you are networking with wants the conversation to continue, and decide whether they are the best investment of your time. It’s not about FOMO, it’s about what (or who) is most beneficial for you.
3. Assess the room before jumping right in
If you’re lucky, you’ll receive an attendance list before you show up so you can research people you will want to speak with before you get there. However, this isn’t a common occurrence. To be prepared, you need to be able to adapt to the attendees once you arrive. When you walk in, take a few seconds to observe what is going on. Are there large groups of people talking, or are people paired off and speaking in quiet conversations? Do the groups seem to be formed based on age, race, attire, or something else? Understand the dynamic of the room and create a rank based on first impressions of who you think will be the most beneficial to speak to. This ranking is allowed to change as the time passes, but having a starting idea will make the rest of the event easier to navigate. Try and avoid small talk with your peers, and focus on connecting with professionals that can really assist you.
4. Don’t be a lurker
While you’re creating your plan of action for the event, make sure you aren’t standing on the side of the room watching like a predator. You should be able to assess the situation and make a decision about who you want to approach first within a minute. However, if the person you wanted to speak with first is already involved in a conversation, it is important that you don’t hover nearby while you wait for them to finish. For lack of a better term, we call these people ‘lurkers’ and they can make networking events incredibly uncomfortable. You also shouldn’t interrupt a conversation by inserting yourself into it. Allow other conversations to conclude so that you will have their undivided attention when it is your turn to chat. While you wait, go strike up a conversation with someone else who is free nearby or check and see if there are any hors d’oeuvres set out.
5. Always introduce yourself first
Now that the person you have been waiting to speak to is available, it’s crucial that you make an impressive first impression. Save yourself (and the person you are about to speak to) the awkwardness of first introductions by approaching with confidence. Keep your chin up, shoulders back, portfolio in the left hand, and when you are about two steps away, extend your right hand for a handshake. Always introduce yourself using your first and last name and make sure to maintain eye contact. You’ll be surprised how quickly the tension evaporates once you initiate the introduction. Exchanging names turns into discussing what you are majoring in at school, then they talk about what they do for a living, and before you know it you’re on your way to developing a connection.
6. Smile and listen
The conversation is flowing easily at this point, but there is one crucial thing to remember – people love to talk. At networking events, your job is to learn as much about who you are talking to as possible. And I don’t mean just about what they do for work, you want to learn about their hobbies, what they consider priorities, how they got where they are, etc. Basically, you want to know anything and everything that will help you create a connection with this person. The goal is to learn as much as you can in as little time as possible, so you have topics to follow up on when you email them later on. The only way this can be done is to have a good amount of the conversation be about them and make sure you keep asking questions!
7. Be remarkably memorable
Naturally, in the amount of time you will spend talking to each person, the conversation will not only revolve around them. One-sided conversations can be uncomfortable, and the person you are speaking to may have an agenda of their own. It is crucial that when the conversation takes its turn to be about you, that you have something important to say. Discussing things that are specific to you make it easier for the person you are speaking with to remember you by. Broad information like your major, graduation year, and academic interests are easily forgotten, but details such as if you’ve started a club, blog, or company are distinct and memorable. Unique facts are also incredibly interesting and will keep the conversation flowing. Prepare noteworthy talking points prior to your arrival so you aren’t scrambling to come up with something special on the spot or feel forced to make something up.
8. Have a clear call to action
When you registered for this networking event, did you have a reason for attending? It is important to know ahead of time what you really want to get out of this opportunity. What are you aiming to gain from the people you meet? Make sure when you are acting upon this decision that you are not blunt with the person you are talking to, as this can sometimes come off as aggressive. Subtly cue to the person you’re talking to what it is you’re looking for, whether it’s a job, internship, shadow opportunity, or simply just growing your network. If you are speaking to a recruiter, ask them to take a copy of your resume before the conversation ends. If you are speaking to a person who is a manager or in another position of power at their company, ask them to put you into contact with someone in HR or set up an informational interview for a later date. Remember that everyone has a reason for attending this networking event, so be honest but casual about what it is you’re looking for.
9. Write down relevant conversation details
Remember when we said to carry a portfolio with you? This is where it comes into play. As you move from person to person, make sure you take time between conversations (not during them) to jot down what you spoke about with each individual. This is an incredibly quick and easy thing to do that is so frequently overlooked, but will save you major time later on when you’re trying to remember who you spoke to and what you spoke about.
10. Tell them you will follow up (and then actually do it)
Following up is the lifeline to networking. It’s crucial that you tell each person you speak to at the event that you value their time, appreciate them attending, and that you will follow up with the conversation you had. That night, or the next morning, you need to actually follow up! Send the people you spoke to a short and professional email stating that you enjoyed meeting with them and the conversations you had. Add a personal touch to it by referencing the notes you wrote down about your conversations. These little details will make them feel valued and help them realize that you are serious about maintaining this connection. This email is the deciding point for whether the time you spent working hard in school and preparing for this event pays off. Is it worth it for you to take 5 minutes and shoot your connections a message? Yes, always follow up! If you’re having a bit of trouble thinking about what to say, check out our article on how to write an impressive thank you letter.
Networking can be stressful and uncomfortable at times, but it is incredibly important if you want to make connections. While “knowing someone” isn’t the only way to land a job, it certainly helps. Use these tips, make those meaningful connections, and land that offer. If you’re still worried about networking, here’s our article on conquering that anxiety to make your experience as stress free as can be. Good luck!