Starting a new business, shifting to a new industry, looking for a job in a new city--there are times in your career when you'll have to look outside the network you already have and meet a whole host of new people.
And that often means hitting up events, conferences, meetups, and the like, situations that can leave even the smartest, most successful among us feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
In environments where you should be putting your best foot forward, it can be easy to stumble and damage your reputation before you even have the chance to really build it.
What are the most common faux pas? Here are four I see all the time--and how to steer clear of them.
Mistake #1: Forgetting Conversational Etiquette
Many people equate networking with an opportunity for self-promotion. And, that's true--to some extent.
When meeting new people, you definitely want to present the best version of yourself and talk about the parts of your background or experience that will make them excited to learn more.
But that doesn't mean you should steamroll the conversation. In fact, going out of your way to show interest in others is the best way to leave a positive impression.
Business coach Alisoun Mackenzie recommends the 80-20 rule--keeping 80% of the conversation focused on your partner and only 20% on yourself--but at minimum, make sure you're listening just as much as you're talking.
Mistake #2: Showing Up Unprepared
Networking isn't a meeting, and you definitely don't need to treat it that way, but you should plan on doing at least a little bit of preparation before any event you attend.
First, do some research on who's attending. Who might you have some comment interests with? Who could be a valuable contact in the future?
Jot down a list, and make a point to try and cross paths with as many of them as possible. (If you're heading out ASAP and haven't done this, a quick fix is to check the event hashtag to see who's tweeting in advance.)
If the event is smaller--say, you're attending a friend's book club with five or six others in your field, or a dinner for a conference you're at--do your best to get the attendee list in advance and spend a few minutes quickly Googling your tablemates. It can be extremely valuable to find out beforehand that "Jennifer" is really Jennifer Smith from that industry blog you admire--and highly frustrating to figure it out a bit too late!
Once you know who you want to meet and why, make sure you have your elevator pitch ready to go--your brief elevator pitch.
Rambling on about just how passionate you are about your work or company is a mistake I see both career changers and new entrepreneurs making all the time. A few dry runs beforehand will help you keep it short, sweet, and engaging (see these tips for my best elevator pitch advice).
Mistake #3: Getting Too Personal
Ideally, you want networking conversations to feel natural, and talking about your personal interests in addition to your business goals is a great way to get to know people quickly. (Some of my favorite topics: travel destinations, where to find a great burger, iced coffee, or chocolate chip cookie in NYC, and the history-meets-hip-hop smash Broadway hit Hamilton.)
But, that doesn't mean you should speak to a new acquaintance as if he or she is your oldest and dearest friend.
New connections don't necessarily want to hear about your recent nasty falling out with a friend, your regular laser hair removal appointments, or even your political opinions (and yes, I've found myself in conversations with near strangers on all three of those things).
Err on the side of caution and stick with topics you'd be comfortable discussing with your boss.
Mistake #4: Following Up--the Wrong Way
You already know that networking extends past making connections--it's all about maintaining them. And that starts with a friendly follow-up a day or so after you've met someone.
Emphasis on the "friendly." I can't tell you how many times I've met someone, then the next day found an email in my inbox requesting a major introduction, a job lead, or some other major ask.
Just because you've met someone once doesn't mean you're now in the inner circle.
Stay in touch with your contacts casually by connecting on LinkedIn or sending along articles or opportunities you think they'd be interested in from time to time. You'll build the relationship organically--and that's bound to be more fruitful in the long run.
Getting back in the networking game isn't easy, but some of the most common mistakes aren't hard to avoid.
Stay friendly, be prepared, and keep it appropriate, and you'll be on your way to long-lasting relationships.