You've heard this over and over: One of the key strategies for every entrepreneur is to build, maintain, and grow a network. For many people, this is easy to say but hard to do. How do you approach others at a networking event? What do you say?

According to Mike Tyrrell, a therapist and co-founder of Uncommon Knowledge, fear is what holds people back in social situations. "Well, often they fear saying the 'wrong thing,' but what does that mean?" he asks. "Actually, it's not so much what you say--within reason--but how you come across when you're saying it. When you're relaxed and confident, you'll transmit that comfort to the person(s) with whom you're communicating."

  1. Look approachable. Don't hide out in a corner, sipping on a drink (although that helps sometimes). Even if you think you are the shyest person in the world, take a deep breath and stand where people can see you. Put a pleasant expression on your face, and don't be afraid to smile when someone looks your way. Research by Claire Conway, PhD, and her colleagues at University of Aberdeen in Scotland has found that we find people who smile and look directly at us more attractive. Conway also reports that people are 86 percent more likely to strike up conversations with strangers in the street if they are smiling.
  2. Have a great handshake. When someone comes up to you--or you approach another person--use eye contact, a smile, and your confident handshake when you introduce yourself. You're automatically putting the other person at ease! As you shake hands, make an effort to remember the person's name. Say it aloud, and then use it again during your upcoming conversation. Do not automatically hand over your business card. People won't remember you unless you take time to begin a relationship.
  3. Begin with a question. No matter what the event, you can initiate any conversation by asking a question. "Is this the first time you've been to this meeting?" "How did you get into ____?" "I'm looking forward to the speaker. Have you ever heard her?" Even the food can be helpful: "I wonder who catered? These are delicious." Women sometimes have an advantage; they can say things like: "I love your scarf! Where did you find it?" "How can we get more females involved?" The question should invite a response that is more than a yes or a no.
  4. Show interest and give compliments. Your sincere interest in another person will make networking easier. Remember that everyone has a story. Everyone! When you ask questions and encourage someone to talk, you are building a relationship. You may be able to offer a resource or a connection that will be helpful. Compliments can be powerful, but they must be genuine. Examples: "You have worked so hard! You must be proud of your results." "What a story! Have you shared it?" Don't be afraid of appropriate humor. It's the universal icebreaker.
  5. Develop your "elevator speech." Networking events--and most social get-togethers--offer you the opportunity to tell your story. Take time to develop a 30-second description of yourself, your mission, and your business. Make it informative and compelling. When someone asks you about yourself and what you do, don't blow your opportunity. Deliver your elevator speech--it may be your only chance.

Networking events are fantastic ways to market yourself and your business. Learn to ask questions and to talk about your goals. Offer resources when you can. Just don't forget to develop new relationships. When you're sincere, you will find networking to be full of potential!

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