If you're a business owner, chances are you're very familiar with the practice of networking. But familiarity doesn't always breed comfort; just because we do it doesn't mean we like it. No matter how many events, conferences or seminars you go to throughout the year, networking can be awkward. And uncomfortable. And kind of the worst.
As the CEO of my company, networking is part of my job. Some CEOs opt to not be the face of their company, but I chose the other route, because I actually like being the face of my company, and yes, networking--I know, it sounds wild.
But if I've learned anything in my time as an entrepreneur, it's that networking actually is as important as everyone says it is, but it doesn't have to be as miserable as everyone says it is. These are some of my best tips for making the most out of networking.
Don't Go on Autopilot
It can be very tempting to just cruise through a networking event; coffee in the morning, this keynote, this panel, lunch, this discussion, this fireside chat, this dinner party. While this is certainly the easiest way to get through a networking event, it's also the biggest waste of your time.
I try to treat networking events like I would a school course, or any other educational resource: before the event, I ask myself, what do I want to get out of this, and how can I make that happen? Go in with a game plan, but don't be afraid to stray from it either. If you meet someone awesome and they convince you to come to their seminar instead of the one you were planning to attend, go for it!
Just don't catch yourself dragging your feet through the entire event. You'll only get out of it what you put into it. Yeah, your mom was right about that, too.
Light Up Your Halo
In less cheesy terms: smile. In even less cheesy terms: don't look miserable. Chances are, most of the people at this event would much rather be at home with their families. But if there's one place to not wear your heart on your sleeve, it's a networking event.
You don't have to walk around with a huge grin on your face; I try to just wear an expression that says, "I'm grateful to be here and ready to seize the day's opportunities." An added bonus of wearing a warm expression is that people will feel more inclined to come up to you first, which is a nice way to ease into networking.
Make Everyone Else Feel Smart
You're smart, okay? If you were waiting on someone to tell you, I just did. At a networking event, you're likely to be surrounded by lots of other smart people, who are going to spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to convince other people that they're smart. Don't be like them.
Everyone has something valuable to teach you, and when you embrace that by taking a genuine interest in what other people are building, it'll make them feel good. You'll get a peek into their world, and they'll get the satisfaction of knowing someone cares; and not just anyone, but you specifically. Trust me, they'll remember that.
You can't spend the entire time at a network event listening to everyone else's stories; that would be nice, and a lot less pressure, but would also make you look weirdly voyeuristic--and a little suspicious.
Make sure you're sharing about yourself and your company, but don't feel obligated to divulge every detail to every person you meet. If you're sharing the same amount of information with everyone, it becomes less valuable. Save the good stuff for the people you really bond with, and decide where to draw the line with others.
Get High-Powered People's Phone Numbers
I know what you're thinking: uh, it's not exactly that easy. To that I say, sure it is.
When you're chatting with someone and get around to talking about, say, after-parties or dinner plans, just ask: "What's the best way to reach you?"
One of two things will happen: the first, and least likely, is that they'll give you an assistant's contact information. That would be a bummer, but not the end of the world. What's more likely, though, is that they'll give you their personal number, or at least the number of the phone they have on them--that's probably the only number they remember.
Now, just because you have their number doesn't mean you can abuse it. But if they give it to you, it's fair game. Use it wisely, AKA not just to get into the after-party.
Don't Underestimate E-mail
If you play your cards right, you're going to get a lot of business cards, which means a lot of e-mail addresses. Don't get bogged down by the idea that someone is too busy for you, or that you'll get lost in their inbox.
Fire off a note after the event--I try not to wait more than two days--and let them know how great it was to meet them. You can subtly remind them who you are and what you talked about, and suggest meeting up again in a more personal setting. Most importantly, if you can, offer them something, even if it's just your further interest in what they're doing. In the right amounts, flattery can get you far.
And don't be afraid to follow up if you don't get a response. The truth of the matter is that their inbox probably is a mess; but if you're persistent, you can get through, and continue the relationship well beyond the end of the event.