I love networking. The practice gets a bad rap, since it conjures visions of slimy self promoters eager to hand you their business card before they even know your name, or professional events where nobody cares about each other. At certain events, this may be the case, but at the good ones, you’re just finding new friends who work in similar industries. Who can say no to that – someone who adds value both professionally and personally?
I love meeting people who I can discuss esoteric tech principles or marketing techniques. I love meeting exotic entrepreneurs from other countries who have come to Silicon Valley to make it big. I love meeting bloggers, authors, and artists who have stories about their creations and passions.
I may have to have dozens of dud conversations before I find someone I want to follow up with, but the return on investment on the Wins far outstrips the drudgery involved in finding them. Through networking and conferences, I’ve discovered sites like CollegeInfoGeek, PartTimeTraveller, and LifeLong-Learner.com, which are all great sites I enjoy. But more importantly, I count the people behind them as friends – friends who can help me along my own entrepreneurial path.
Anyways, after all this networking I’ve picked some mannerisms that help me do it better. I’m certainly no expert networker (or slimy self promoter), but here’s advice I would give to anybody:
My default outfit always includes pair of bright red pants with a white contrasting belt. It’s just different enough as to be remarkable, without me looking ridiculous or overbearing. Anybody can walk up and comment on my pants to start a conversation – it’s one less hurdle between us talking. If you dress in a way that sets you apart, it’ll allow the more gregarious (or inebriated) of the crowd to start conversations easily, while ensuring people don’t forget you as easily.
This is a tactic that started in bars, where men ‘peacock’ by wearing outlandish costumes to stand out from the pack. No need to go overboard – Dave Kerpen accomplishes this through bright orange shoes. Just different enough to be memorable when you’re trying to remember him among the dozens of people and names you met at a conference.
Don’t Use Business Cards
Foisting your business card on someone too early in an exchange is a surefire turn off. Wait till the end, and only do it if it makes sense and you really want to follow up. Too often I’ll end a conference with pockets full of business cards I’ll never look at twice, since they felt obligated to give me one. Connect if it makes sense, and if not, it’s no big deal.
Personally I don’t ever use business cards – if I want to connect I’ll add them on Linkedin right there on my mobile. Or they can take a picture of me holding up my wallet, which has a business card of sorts on it, with my name, website, and contact info. That way I 1) stand out from the hordes with business cards 2) don’t waste paper with an easily deletable photo, and 3) tie my face to the information. But that’s just me.
Present Yourself Strategically
Look for groups of people with odd numbers, so that you can easily slide yourself into the conversation without drawing them away from each other. Single people wandering around or playing with their phone are also easy prey. If you have to join an even numbered group, do so directly, by entering from a direction where everyone can see you, maintaining eye contact, and introducing yourself when the conversation lulls or it seems awkward that you’re there. Of course you have to read the body language, but it’s easier than you think.
Once you’re in, remember that many of the people you meet will never see you again – you’re looking for those who share interests or business opportunities with. So present yourself strategically, by selecting the parts of your story that help them figure out where you could fit in to their future. I introduce myself as a content marketer and blogger, citing my startup marketing past and self-published book as proof. (Oftentimes I’ll have the book with me, as a sort of instant wow-resume.) That gets the conversation oriented around what I can bring to the table, or just around topics I care about.
Ask Thoughtful Questions
Too often conversations get mired in boring work talk. Find the good stuff that one or both of you are interested in, and talk about that. Start with open ended casual questions like ‘What do you want to take away from this event?’, ‘So, what’s your story?’, ‘How can I help you?’, or ‘What are you passionate about?’. Then they can take the discussion in almost any direction, and it spares them from immediately relating what their job is or where they’re from over and over.
Take it easy!
It’s not networking – it’s just talking with friends you haven’t met yet! Listen as much as you talk, maintain eye contact without being aggressive, and feel free to end conversations you think aren’t going anywhere – most people understand a simple ‘It was great talking to you, I’m going to go [get a drink, check out upstairs, whatever] now’. If I’m tired I’ll often find a couch with one other person on it and recharge with light conversation instead of serious discussion. The night is up to you – there’s no need to make it an ordeal.